Education, Development, and Change
Email Dr. Shahid Siddiqui

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Making Education a Priority

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 06 Jul, 2009
IN the times we live in, human capital has emerged as the most significant and decisive factor in a country’s progress. One can safely say that most developed countries owe their rise to their educated and skilled manpower.

Interestingly, countries replete with natural resources and other assets are lagging behind primarily because of a dearth of trained human capital. Pakistan has an inherent advantage as it has a larger younger population whose strengths and skills can be tapped for national development in order to be turned into real human capital.

Objective education can potentially play a significant role in making this dream a reality. It is through education that we can prepare our human capital which can lead the country towards progress and socio-economic development. The development linked with human capital is relatively more sustainable compared to the kind of progress experienced during the Musharraf era, when an artificial aura of development was created by showing high growth rates. The contrived image of development can be largely attributed to foreign direct investment (FDI) in telecom and banking belonging to the services sector; the bubble of growth, however, burst the moment FDI came down.

The proper construction of human capital is thus crucial to sustainable development and education is pivotal to its creation. The significant role of education in national growth is aptly highlighted in the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2008-09: “At the highest policy level within the potential of the government, it is readily conceded that investment in the quantity and quality of education by enhancing educational facilities within the minimum possible time contributes a lot to the accumulation of efficient human resource and sustained socio-economic growth.”

The reality, however, is far removed from the myth though, as actions speak louder than claims. The trend in the allocation of funds for education in the last three years tells an entirely different tale — in 2006-07 the allowance was 2.5 per cent of GDP, which was perhaps the lowest in South Asia. In 2007-08 this slipped down to 2.47 per cent of GDP and for 2008-09, it dipped further to 2.1 per cent.

What does this ever-declining allotment suggest? Even a layperson can interpret that education has never been a priority for the government. And the actual allocation is even less than the shown number. For instance, last year it was claimed that the allocation for education was 2.47 per cent of GDP, whereas in one of the official presentations it was conceded that the actual amount was a mere 1.46 per cent.

Inadequate allocation is not the only problem faced by the education sector; a large percentage of the allocated money also remains unspent. According to an assessment, about 60 per cent is held on to. Major reasons for this include our complex bureaucratic system and the lack of financial knowledge on the part of our principals and head teachers. Another cause is the inability of institutions to utilise funds in the stipulated period of time.

Misappropriation of funds is another area that afflicts the sector as the impact of the spent money is hardly felt at the classroom level. According to the Mahbubul Haq Human Development Centre Report (2007) “Half of the adult population is still illiterate.” A large number of children cannot get to schools and a large number drops out by the time they reach class five. The ultimate result is that education, a potent ingredient in generating human capital, does not reach a large chunk of the population.

It is believed widely that education can alleviate poverty and reduce socio- economic differences. The Economic Survey of Pakistan acknowledges this aspect and claims that, “The trickle-down effects of education, especially primary and secondary education, reduce poverty by increasing the productivity of the poor thus equipping people with the skills they need to participate actively in society.” The trickle-down approach is fine as far as its apparent logic is concerned but the pathetic state of government investment in this area makes it a distant dream.

Interestingly, when we compare the expenditure on education to that on defence, we realise that we do not have a pro-education stance. According to the MHHDC report 2007, Pakistan is the second country in the table of defence expenditure, the first being Nepal. If the government is not ready to reduce its defence expenditure keeping in view the current national security situation, then it must resort to the second option — cutting down on luxurious expenses involved in public offices and VIP visits. Only then will we find money for more important areas such as education and health.

The writer is a director at Lahore School of Economics and the author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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