THE minister of education has announced the National Education Policy (NEP) for the next decade. It is interesting that the previous education policy, for the period of 1998 to 2010, had still not expired.
The justification for a new policy given by the minister is that the last one was not producing the required results. But this could be said about all earlier policies which were a lot of rhetoric and always fell short of reality. Even a layperson would know that the problem was at the implementation level.
This was the case with the previous education policy. The goals were quite noble but there was no political will to realise those goals. Instead of tidying up the implementation process, the government opted for an easy solution — a new policy. By offering this, every government gets an opportunity to make attractive promises and sellable declarations.
The worth of an education policy is no more than a political ploy as one can see a ‘disconnect’ between policies and practices in Pakistan. For instance, the education policy which now declares that English should be a compulsory subject is not new as this decision was taken in Musharraf’s regime and was announced by the then education minister, Zobaida Jalal. Similarly there is a ‘disconnect’ between policy declarations and budget allocations. NEP 2010 however, is different from previous education policies on the count that its process of designing started almost three years before. A number of seminars and meetings were organised apparently to draw the consensus of different groups of stakeholders.
The NEP looks like a long wish list. It’s replete with promises ranging from allocation to achievement of ambitious goals. Those who are familiar with the fate of previous policies consider the new policy as ‘too good to be true’. Let us look at some salient features of the document. The most important announcement is that the allocation for education would be seven per cent of the national GDP by 2015.
Can we trust this statement? Despite our desire, there are problems. If we look at the trend in the allocation to education in the last three years, we realise the reason for the reluctance to believe in the promise made by NEP 2010. In 2006-7 the allocation was 2.5 per cent of GDP and in 2007-8 this was reduced to 2.47 per cent. This year (2008-9) the amount further came down to 2.1 per cent of GDP.
These declining figures allude to ground realities where one can see a gaping chasm between professed ideas and actual deeds. Similar good news was shared by Mr Shaukat Aziz, the then prime minister, who promised that the allocation to education would be raised to four per cent of GDP. Instead of catching up with the raised figure, we sadly saw a decline.
Without suspecting the intentions of the minister of education, one can identify practical difficulties in releasing the promised amount by the ministry of finance. Speaking on a TV show, the minister of education admitted that the dynamics pertaining to the release of funds have not been sorted out. This aspect becomes all the more important as, in the past, actual release/spending was far less than the allocated amount.
Another ‘too good to be true’ announcement is that the level of public-sector schools will be lifted to match the levels of good private schools. And the deadline for this humongous task is 2010. Such statements tend to backfire. A natural response to the statement is, ‘how’.
Is there a magic wand which can turn sick units of public schools into private-sector schools? What does it take to improve the quality? Is it just buildings, or books, or teachers, or administration, or assessment or school milieu or a blend of all that constitute the notion of quality? How can this be done in a year?
Another very ambitious declaration is that, 'a common curricular framework in general as well as professional education will be applied to educational institutions in both the public and private sectors.' The question remains the same: how? There is no strategy mentioned in the policy document that could make us believe that this goal is attainable.
The NEP claims that the literacy rate will be enhanced to 86 per cent by 2015. This seems to be another promise which looks good on paper but its implementation is not that easy. Besides quantitative expansion, i.e. increase in the literacy rate, it is important to have a specific strategy for qualitative improvement of education in the country. The policy fails to provide a vision on the most important issue — social injustice and economic disparity. How can education be used to reduce gaps between the haves and the have-nots? How can it prepare thinking human beings? How can it challenge some of the taboos, fixed mindsets, and intolerance in society? Unfortunately the existing education system is widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
The central issue that needed to be tackled in the policy is the educational apartheid: elite and poor education. So the problem will not be solved by declaring free education up to matriculation. The issue involves the opportunities a public-sector school gives to a matriculate as compared to a student who gets an ‘O’ level certificate from an elite English-medium school.
The state seems to have given up on its responsibility to provide education and is thus relying too much on the private sector. This has turned public-sector schools into sick units. The policy does not talk about any strategy to bring qualitative improvement in public-sector educational institutions. On the whole, the policy focuses on the whys and whats but skilfully ignores the real issues of who and how. One wonders why such a significant document was not presented in parliament. A thorough discussion in parliament on the document could have enhanced its ownership and credibility.
The writer is a director at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.