Covid-19 has clearly resurfaced many of our structural imbalances. Few have equally highlighted the need for an ‘economic vaccine’ in this time aside from the much needed vaccine for the mitigation of the virus. Sadly, our academic situation has been hallmarked with a deep economic scar at this time of the pandemic, which doesn’t leave much hope – at a time when it was much needed. When, already, our weakened synergies between yearly commitments, budgetary allocations and socio-economic scenarios for the case of education had been haunting us for decades. Yet again during this pandemic, the eerie silence regarding the absenteeism of education for children living in remote areas, who unfortunately lack the necessary means to attain online education says alot about our commitment to increase the skill level of our population.
Pakistan’s commitment to education for its citizens can be gauged from goal number four of Sustainable Development Goals – ‘Quality Education’. Amidst the power struggle, vested interests, scarcity of resources and now a pandemic – the future of many children is in jeopardy. In Pakistan, primary education from grades 1-5, has seen an overall increase in enrollment over the years. Similarly, the number of primary mainstream institutions and primary teachers have both witnessed an increase in the past three years. Primary schooling is a phase which can be classified as nurturing the mind for future education – thus a building block on which many potential innovations can be based upon.
For the case of primary education, by analyzing indicator 4.1.1 which deals with the proportion of children achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics – we have some appalling results. Using the Annual Status of Education Report (2019) we see that for grade 5, the national (rural) outcomes give a positive outlook ‘over the years’. Children who could read a story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto went from 46.4 percent in 2014 to 59.1 percent in 2019. Children who read english sentences went up from 42.3 percent to 55.4 percent in 2014 and 2019 respectively. A similar trend followed for arithmetic skills, where the number of children who could solve a simple 2 digit division, increased from 40.4 percent to 56.9 percent. Slightly better results were seen for urban areas where the numbers become 69.5, 66.5 and 65.9 percent respectively in 2019.
However, considering that 65 percent of our population lives in rural areas and 30.76 percent of the population belongs to the age group 0-14 years – this suggests that critical literacy benchmarks have a long way to go. Another striking statistic shows that 9.4 class-wise percent of children cannot read at all. According to another recent report from the World Bank, after adjusting for out-of-school children, 75 percent of primary-age children in Pakistan are not proficient in reading. All this indicates the learning poverty prevalent in our system. These numbers clearly pinpoint at another crisis in the making for the coming future.
Traditionally, neoclassical theory pirouettes around welfare maximization but sustainable development revolves around the principles of equity. Thus, it entails equal opportunities for everyone, including the future generations. This brings us to indicator 4.a.1, which deals with ‘the proportion of schools having access to electricity, internet, computers, infrastructure and materials for students with disabilities, access to basic drinking water, sanitation and handwashing facilities’. Regrettably, the majority of the Pakistani schools do not fare well on the former criteria mentioned for schools.
Our dilapidated school qualities include an absence of drinking water and electricity; let alone access to requirements for information technology education. Furthermore, we have a proliferation of ‘ghost’ schools and teachers. In such cases, both students and teachers are absent, and funds are still allocated – clearly siphoning off the already depleted resources allocated in the budget. Pakistan’s educational situation, especially access to facilities is under hot waters, as is evident from the following statistics on government schools from the ASER report of 2019. Only 61.4 percent of these schools have access to usable drinking water. The percentage of schools with separate toilets for girls is 24.4 percent. Boundary wall is present in only 74.7 percent, 56.2 percent have electricity connection and just a meager 5.2 percent have an internet connection. Only 50.6 percent of these schools have usable furniture. In comparison, private schools fare a little better in these statistics.
The rationality of the fancy words of ‘actualizing one’s productive potential’ can be denied if the above facts are surmised. Bearing in mind that while we already have a plight of many socio-economic exogenous issues that hinder many young children to acquire education, such statistics add their fair share in parent’s willingness to send their children to schools, primarily girls. As if the exigencies related to poverty or traditional mindsets was not enough to erode the value of every human being. Regardless of the highlighted eminence of digital skills during Covid-19 – they were much needed since the dawn of the previous decade. Information technology is going to become a ‘structural support’ for the future economies. However, it is very evident that we certainly are not on the right track to fulfill this much needed prerequisite for economic growth because of a lack of basic internet connections or other IT equipment in schools.
Keeping in view the current worldwide trends in the fields of education, teachers are advised to incorporate different kinds of teaching strategies and course designs to elucidate full concentration and participation of children, and thus preparing them for critical thinking. However, considering the major chunk of our teaching staff, aside from all these practices, rote learning is imbibed in children. The future demands innovations as suggested by many development theories. Benhabib and Spiegel hypothesized that human capital affects growth directly through technological-innovation growth rate of a country or indirectly through affecting the pace of absorption of technological related knowledge. Simple parroting of knowledge hinders the creative potential and the process of critical thinking needed to solve issues of the real world. All these phenomena factor in, and create a bigger picture where students get demotivated from learning and their potential is hampered. Assuming that with a lack of education, these children will join the informal economy in the future, we are not on the path to sustainable development.
While it may be clear that problems in our education system are manifold, it is never too late for a remedy to work. We need to let go of our own rhetoric of slogans, and yearly experiments which lead us to nowhere. Simultaneously, we need to understand the reality that our country needs increased budgetary commitments, institutional arrangements and proper management of existing resources to deal with the dilemma at hand. While this year, many people initially applauded the achievement of marginally increasing the budget for education to PKR 83 billion at the time of a pandemic, the real deflated amount shows a decrease from last year to an amount of PKR 77.04 billion in real terms.
Nonetheless, few major priorities of the government should be: availability of proper infrastructure at schools, training of teachers on the basis of keeping up with the research and skills worldwide, and imparting digital know-how to students. At the time of this pandemic, the decision to re-open schools should be kept pending for a few months in the future because with the current infrastructure, students will not be able to probably keep up with the standard operating procedures. Instead, the government should facilitate internet access to remote areas. The digital skills, a proviso for the future, along with other competencies needed should be taught using national television.
Reinventing the wheel every few consecutive years should cease. Considering that these children are the future of our economy, we certainly have a dire need to revamp our education system. The rising inequality in Pakistan can also be explained by a widening gap between the quality and access to education. Instead of creating a bubble economy, we should use resources to our advantage by utilizing our abundant labor force in contributing to innovation, productivity, and thus to economic growth. Surely, the road ahead is bumpy with debt servicing, fiscal deficits, ballooning pensions and increased health costs, but we can certainly focus a little more on education as a priority at the moment. This pandemic has taught us one valuable lesson – the importance of contemporary education, breakthroughs and digital skills – all of which are necessary for survival in the future. All of us should realize the responsibility we have to our future generations. Ultimately this all fits into the paradigm of sustainable development.