Shat­tered dreams

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Faisal Bari

JAVED dreamt of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer and work­ing for a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion that would al­low him to travel around the world. Af­ter com­plet­ing his In­ter­me­di­ate in the late 1980s, and un­able to se­cure enough marks to en­ter one of the few pub­lic-sec­tor en­gi­neer­ing schools avail­able then, and not hav­ing enough money to go abroad, he ended up do­ing a two-year Bach­e­lor's de­gree pro­gramme. He be­came an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant in the early 1990s. He is still work­ing as se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant. He knows he will re­tire as an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant.

But he wanted some­thing dif­fer­ent for his three chil­dren. When it was time to take school­ing de­ci­sions for his chil­dren, the only op­tions were pub­lic schools or pri­vate schools charg­ing low to medium fee. He could not af­ford the elite pri­vate schools. The qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion in pub­lic schools, by and large, was poor. So even though he knew it would cause sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial prob­lems for him, he chose to send his chil­dren to pri­vate schools charg­ing a medium fee. He even ar­ranged and paid for af­ter-school tu­itions for his chil­dren.

His el­dest son did his In­ter­me­di­ate a cou­ple of years back. De­spite the best ef­forts of the child and the house­hold, he could not se­cure enough marks to get ad­mit­ted to one of the pub­lic-sec­tor en­gi­neer­ing schools. Javed could not af­ford to send his child abroad or to one of the pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties avail­able. The child has ended up in a tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion di­ploma pro­gramme that will, hope­fully, give him a mar­ketable skill set. The house­hold went through ma­jor de­pres­sion: Javed and his son's dreams of a bet­ter life were shat­tered.

The same is hap­pen­ing with the sec­ond son now. He is do­ing his In­ter­me­di­ate and though he is aca­dem­i­cally stronger, there is a sig­nif­i­cant pos­si­bil­ity, given how com­pet­i­tive ad­mis­sions are to top pub­lic-sec­tor en­gi­neer­ing schools, that he will not make it to any of these schools. If that hap­pens, he is plan­ning to do a Bach­e­lor's de­gree in the so­cial sciences. But, af­ter that, what sort of jobs will he be el­i­gi­ble for?

The Con­sti­tu­tion of the coun­try talks of equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for all. It makes a case for a life of dig­nity for all. Ac­quir­ing an ed­u­ca­tion is usu­ally seen as a pow­er­ful ve­hi­cle through which in­ter­gen­er­a­tional mo­bil­ity can be fa­cil­i­tated, and equal op­por­tu­nity in the ac­cess to qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion can go a long way in en­sur­ing that the po­ten­tial of each and ev­ery child is fully de­vel­oped. We have even ex­plic­itly added the right to ed­u­ca­tion as a ba­sic right in the Con­sti­tu­tion. But this is clearly not a pri­or­ity for the state and it has never been one.

We have al­lowed our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to frag­ment along many lines - al­most com­pletely. The elites send their chil­dren to very ex­pen­sive high­qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions while the rest have a choice be­tween rel­a­tively poor-qual­ity pub­lic schools or pri­vate schools that charge low to medium fee. The qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion at such pri­vate schools is also only marginally bet­ter than that in the poorly per­form­ing pub­lic schools of the coun­try. Many chil­dren do not even get these op­tions. They go to madres­sahs, and there are more than two mil­lion chil­dren, from five to 16 years of age, who are not in any school.

Many com­men­ta­tors have raised the is­sue as a bit of a para­dox: the de­mand for qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion seems to be strong, and this is ev­i­dent in the fact that many par­ents are choos­ing to pay as much as they can af­ford to get ac­cess to the highest qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion they can reach. But at the same time, though the rhetoric is there, the de­mand for qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion by the peo­ple is not trans­lat­ing into a state pri­or­ity to pro­vide qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion to all. Ed­u­ca­tion bud­gets, de­spite all prom­ises, are still hov­er­ing around 2pc of GDP. Though there have been some moves to­wards uni­ver­sal­is­ing pri­mary en­rol­ment, this move­ment has been quite slow. De­spite dec­la­ra­tions of ed­u­ca­tion emer­gen­cies, no emer­gency ac­tion is ap­par­ent. So how do we square this cir­cle?

Part of the an­swer to the para­dox lies in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem of the coun­try. Elected of­fi­cials do not re­ally think they are an­swer­able to the peo­ple who elect them. The dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive of the coun­try is one of power and not of rights or democ­racy. The ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem of the coun­try is in­verted and ev­ery tier of ev­ery hi­er­ar­chy in the coun­try seems to be ac­count­able only to the higher tier rather than to the peo­ple be­low. Do gen­er­als, judges, bu­reau­crats, politi­cians, in­tel­lec­tu­als and busi­ness peo­ple think they are ac­count­able to the peo­ple? Or are they usu­ally just busy manag­ing their su­pe­ri­ors? It is in­ter­est­ing to see how this ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem works. When a bu­reau­crat or politi­cian gets a call from his or her su­pe­rior, it does not mat­ter what the per­son is do­ing at the mo­ment or is com­mit­ted to. He or she will leave ev­ery­thing to at­tend to the su­pe­rior. The com­mit­ments made to the peo­ple should, at least some of the time, trump other con­cerns. But they never do.

This is a general prob­lem that goes be­yond ed­u­ca­tion, of course. It seems that al­most ev­ery pol­icy area that has ben­e­fits for the masses is be­ing ne­glected: the pro­vi­sion of pub­lic health, wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion.

Ac­cess to qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for all can be a great lev­eller and fa­cil­i­ta­tor of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional mo­bil­ity, and it can be an ex­cel­lent means of en­sur­ing equal op­por­tu­nity for all. But we have an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that is di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to where we want to be. In fact, de­vel­op­ments over the last cou­ple of decades have frag­mented the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem al­most com­pletely along in­come lines. The cur­rent sys­tem just per­pet­u­ates and fur­ther en­trenches ex­ist­ing in­equal­i­ties: it shat­ters dreams, it does not help re­alise them.

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