Education and development Thoughts for the Professor

WEB DESK: Ghost schools are our singular contribution to literature on education. Ghosts, after all, are part of our folklore. Grandma’s bed time stories had a delectable ghost presence that signalled ‘sleep or else’. Ghost hospitals, ghost government employees, ghost voters.

Ghosts behind every calamity that strikes us, never mind if we keep defying gods to make calamities visit us with such alacrity.

Our education narrative too has a touch of the ghost, full of poof generalizations. Everyone wants greater spending, agonizes on the mandate-creep of a security state that leaves less for education, fears it is falling between the provincial and federal stools. The poor state of education is deemed to be the principal cause of our underdevelopment. All the candidates on the TV programme, Enter the Prime Minister, assigned the highest priority to Education.

Curiously, the link between Education and economic development is not self-evident. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, basic illusions are exhausted on the anvil of empirics. Countries have progressed, sometimes astronomically, with low levels of education. Taiwan, South Korea, China are prime examples. Even today’s India, with its modest literacy rate, has been toting up impressive GDP growth. Russia with the highest average years of schooling and largest share of University graduates has been an economic tortoise of late. Sri Lanka’s literacy rate matches the West but economically it remains our cousin. In the early seventies Chile spent one-third of its budget on education, as did Algeria. Chile progressed, Algeria did not.

The age of innocence has given way to age of scepticism. Educational expansion does not make either people or countries more prosperous, contend the contrarians. Some even claim it “leaves people without jobs and countries with burdensome claims on public funds”. At best, most recent research suggests, you have to wait some seventy five years for the payoff from investment in education.

Our debate on educational issues revolves around curriculum and text books, public and private schools, medium of education and even the timing of summer holidays. It is informed by access (brick and mortar), participation rates, and drop out ratios. Public-Private Participation and technological remedies are the mainstream solutions. Have laptop will learn is the model.

The debate misses a fundamental question: education for whom, and how much? Should education be an inalienable right, at par, for example, with civil liberty, freedom of speech, or right to own property? Should it be the State’s responsibility to ensure that everyone matriculates?

Without addressing this question any discussion of education policy will reduce itself to either a diatribe or a dialogue of the deaf. To address for whom and how much, we need to make a distinction between education and literacy. Education is much more than ability to read and write. It is about ‘systems thinking’: envisioning (where to go, how to get there), critical thinking and reflection, and systemic thinking (linkages and synergies). To us, literacy is a right and state responsibility; education is a privilege that has to be earned.

The politically correct will argue that education should be universal; denying it to anyone will be iniquitous and denigrate a just society. Well, we do not propose to deny education to anyone. We only propose that there shouldn’t be a sense of entitlement. In our view the country neither has the financial and administrative resources, nor indeed the duty, to educate everyone, whether or not he passes the fit and proper test. To us quality of education, and not its universality, should define state policies.

Fundamental to our persuasion is the belief that educational strategies should fit in with desired development strategies. If the goal is to provide the right kind of human capital to the real sectors of the economy we need good professionals and competent managers as much as we need skilled workers.

Our paradigm consists of making literacy universal. It is not too challenging a task and requires few resources. Our defence services have a proven track record: they recruit a lad from the village and within months make him literate. So does mobile telephony that forces familiarity with numbers and alphabet. Let’s have a massive campaign to make Pakistan literate – within a year or two. Let the armed forces, NGOs, all of us (especially the senior citizens) join this war on illiteracy. Let it be technology-heavy but cost-lite, with zero expenditure on brick and mortar.

The second stanza of our paradigm is technical education or skill development. We need to have more and better polytechniques, vested with sufficient prestige. Lest these skill centers remain the refuge for drop-outs it will be mission-critical to put unlicensed technicians out of business. We know it is not going to be easy to let no one without a license from a recognised body practice – our lower bureaucracy can be counted on to frustrate the design – but the rewards will amply justify the huge effort required to defang the opposition.

Tertiary education has become a joke, with universities and professional colleges mushrooming faster than Bahria towns – and quality plummeting. Balochistan’s case is instructive. It now boasts of 11 universities, all but one not entitled to the honorific forced on them. As a consequence, we have a legion of post-grads who are not fit to teach, lead, design a bridge, or treat a patient. Little surprise, then, that those who can go to Karachi for medical treatment and higher education and the government goes to Lahore to hire consultants for its development works.

Dr Ata-ur-Rehman and Professor Hoodboy, both of whom we greatly admire, have divergent approaches to higher education. It will be presumptuous for us to disagree with either. We merely question if our development needs are better served by thousands of ill-prepared PhDs and medical doctors, or a much lower number of really good ones. Should higher education be the preserve of the best, or an assembly line of the mediocre? What share of this year’s spending on education ($ 7.5 billion) do we allocate to higher education?

We do not want the Professor, our planning czar, to feel neglected as we routinely battle with the Accountant and the Engineer. So here is a proposition for him to wrap his mind around: literacy for all, technical education for many, ten years schooling for some, and higher education for very few.

Source: Business Recorder