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.