What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?” was asked by the popular American songwriter, Tom Paxton, with seriousness behind the humour. The answers were thought-provoking, because we are often told “facts” in school that are not facts, sometimes even lies, and many things that are not important at all! We are told not to rug the boat but conform. We should think, but only within given parameters. First of all, we should learn what the teachers tell us and what is in the textbooks. And we should learn how to answer questions at exams and get good grades.
I remember a very good teacher I had at university; well, he only taught condensed course over some weeks every autumn and spring, fulfilling his teaching duties before traveling the world, guest lecturing everywhere, writing thousands of papers and articles and about a hundred books. I am talking about Professor Johan Galtung, a peace researcher and activist. He is still at it; the most recent book I came across from his pen was a children’s book. He said that at best a teacher could help a student through lectures to learn 10 percent of the curriculum; the rest was entirely up to the student to learn alone.
Perhaps, the most honest and best teachers we find are at pre-primary level and the first years of primary school. But then, there are again many teachers, pushed by ambitious parents and head teachers, who want to make the children into cognitive ‘learning robots’ even at that level, forgetting that it is more important to learn to be kind and social human beings.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity of listening to an inspiring lecture about challenges in higher education given by Prof Dr Aslam Syed, an analytical historian, coming back after many years of university teaching in Europe. It was refreshing to listen to his opinions about what it is supposed to be a student and a university teacher. He, basically, claimed that we in the social sciences and the humanities, at least, should try to learn to study and think about the world around us, so that we could become better in understanding it. And we should try to explain and discuss with others how we understand issues. Prof Syed stressed that we should not make universities to be vocational training schools, although that can be a problem today because everyone who graduates wants and needs a job. Hence, universities must also teach students something that the society outside the institution needs.
After such a lecture, I reflected more on these issues. Simply put, I thought the important issues could be summarised in a couple of key questions - what do we really want to use the educational institutions for in our societies? What do we need to learn in school and university, in Pakistan, and in my home country Norway, for example? True, the two countries are widely different; Norway being one of the world’s richest, with one of the highest proportions of youth in the world taking higher education, about three-quarters, and Pakistan a poor country, where far less than a tenth of a year-cohort has such a privilege. Norway has had universal primary education and literacy for hundreds of years. In Pakistan, half of the population is still illiterate, and there is far from basic education for all. In Norway, every child goes to school, and children with special education needs are given help. It is a right for every child to learn at his level and pace, and go to school; 10 years are compulsory and three more are also free. Yes, we have, probably, taken it too far because the life outside school is also valuable and much can be learnt by being a shopkeeper’s assistant or an errand boy, or an assistant to a seamstress or a hairdresser. Children and youth can learn social and life-skills in real life, and they can also learn work-skills better than in a classroom.
However, in this article, I do not advocate de-schooling. I advocate the opposite. And I claim that it doesn’t take a miracle to provide schooling for all children and youth! It is simply unwillingness, stubbornness, and so on, especially of old, authoritarian and rich men, that we don’t have education for all in Pakistan. The country is among the 10 countries in the world that spend the lowest amount on education. Yet, Pakistan’s Constitution says that not only primary, but also secondary education shall be provided to all!
At the lecture I attended, it was not the main speaker, but Dr Sohail Naqvi, the Director General of the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, who informed the audience that “we spend less than 2 percent of the country’s GDP on education, and only about 0.2 percent of GDP on higher education that, in turn, is about 10 percent of the education budget.” This is miniscule when compared to Unesco’s recommendation: a country should spend at least 4 percent of its GDP on education. Dr Naqvi claimed that if Pakistan fulfilled its own laws and regulations, about 3 percent of GDP would have to be allocated to education. Education planners suggest that at least 20 percent of the education budget should go to higher education. But it is important to note that no sub-sector should be expanded alone; all sub-sectors must be expanded. Primary education is, indeed, in need of expansion and qualitative improvement.
This is not new, you may say. And money is just one part of the problem. True, but money is, indeed, essential too!
I have dealt with educational issues in Pakistan for over 10 years, including about three years in Unesco at the beginning of last decade. There has hardly been any progress since that time in basic education and literacy for all. It is worse for the majority of children in the sense that about one-third of them now go to private schools. That is a draining of the resources to and quality of the government’s education system. The resourceful teachers and parents, who should argue for improvement in the government system opt out and go over to the private system. The private system produces good candidates at exams. But we should also remember that private schools are businesses, and the education quality and content come second, after the accountant has checked the profit in the bottom line. The private schools are good at imparting cognitive knowledge, but may not do well in developing all-inclusive social attitudes in their students. On top of it, many of the pupils will end up at foreign universities, and those who come home fill the posts of leadership. This can turn out to be very dangerous for the country in the long run.
All is, however, not bleak in education in Pakistan. The country has made major leaps forward in higher education over the last decade or so. HEC should take a lot of credit for that. Yet, I feel that the debate in higher education is often quite tilted to unimportant issues, such as plagiarism, fake degrees (held by MNAs and others), number of PhDs among university faculty, and whether HEC should be split and devolved to the provinces (or lower administrative levels). We should not spend too much time on those issues. Instead we should talk about the real issues, notably the content and type of higher education. We should do the same at the lower levels of education. We need a broad-based education debate in Pakistan. Perhaps, that could be the major theme for the upcoming general election? It will clarify what country we want to build, and how it can be done. In my article next week, I will continue discussing education issues, especially the content of basic education and how we can reach Education For All (EFA).
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.