The politics of education

December 04, 2022

In Pakistan, education — K-12 and higher — has mostly remained neglected

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n Pakistan, education — K-12 and higher — has mostly remained neglected for 75 years. A strong political demand for education has not been created. Public schools, colleges, and universities are meant to serve the citizens, who are also voters in their respective electoral constituencies. The public pressure for education can be gauged from the importance that public representatives assign to education during the election and after being elected to office.

It seems that the country has been obsessed with the physical infrastructure so that the electoral promises revolve around buildings, adding new ones and very recently upgrading colleges and adding universities.

Political commitment is essential for a developmental trajectory. In the case of Pakistan, this commitment has been mostly extractive: focusing on drawing personal gains through political affiliation. This is evident in political intervention in the administrative affairs. We see political interventions in the police stations and in award of government contracts to favoured individuals and companies at the cost of merit and transparency. In education, similar interventions are evident on ideological, policy and administrative levels. These have wrecked the quality of education.

Constituency service is an important element in politicians’ overall distributional and representational repertoires. There are so many ways in which Pakistani politicians provide non-contingent direct assistance to their constituents but access to education hardly makes it to the list. In patronage democracies, societies see a turn-around when education receives the same attention. Unfortunately, since independence, Pakistan’s education spending has remained one of the lowest in the region. Today, it is less than even some African countries.

The problems facing Pakistan’s multi-stream education system have historical underpinnings. In pre-partition India, most Muslims preferred the traditional form of schooling at madrassas. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan pushed for a movement towards Western and more ‘modern’ education. This was after the infamous Macaulay Minute that mandated English as the official language of instruction in schools. More upper-class Hindus shifted to Western and English education leading to further upwards social mobility. Although viewed as a remedial demand to catch up, this also laid the foundation for a distinctive and class-centric elite education gauged through the degree of reliance on and utilisation of English language.

Besides the unsettled language issue, the partition brought about other challenges for education planning in the country. The refugee crisis and struggle for the creation of new state overshadowed the aims of education. Inheriting 33 percent of the military from colonial India set the trajectory for the country over the next 75 years. This greatly influenced how resources would be prioritised in the country in general and allocated towards education in particular.

Along with the challenge of setting financial priorities for education in the new country, the approach towards education provision remained divisive. From 1955-71, Pakistan was ruled under the One Unit Scheme that divided the country into East and West Pakistan, until the separation of East Pakistan i.e., present-day Bangladesh. In the undivided Pakistan, three 5-year plans were undertaken to expedite development. These plans emphasised the creation of new schools in backward areas and pledged the expansion of education facilities with a focus on increasing literacy in the country. While most educational aims were not realised, the number of new schools in West Pakistan was higher than that of the East Pakistan. The East Pakistan also had higher dropout rates.

While political commitment for the cause of education remained missing, political meddling in the administration of educational institutions increased and became menacing. Post-independence the country saw a sharp rise in the number of madrassas (alternatives to schools that cater to low-income families with heavy emphasis on religious education for students). The number increased from 245 madrassas at the time of independence to 13,405 in 2013-2014. During the 1970s, most education institutions were nationalised under Bhutto’s regime, however the madrassas remained largely independent. Gen Zia-ul Haq took the reins in 1977, and the madrassas became politicized along sectarian lines. Some of these were used as a strategic military asset to fight the popular Afghan jihad during the Cold War. This development made madrassas vulnerable to external exploitation for political and other vested interests. Even worse, the stream of education serving the poor strata of the country became stigmatised.

Today, the madrassas have expanded and affiliated more, smaller madrassas, mostly located in urban slums and rural villages. Some major religio-political parties encourage madrassa students and administration to actively engage with political issues and governments of the day. Some of the madrassas are believed to have close ties with radical sectarian and militant groups in and outside the country. The neglect of these harmful trends led to the rise of religious extremism, intolerance and terrorism.

Throughout the 1980s, the Ministry of Education emphasised the National Citizenship Education Curriculum. This curriculum was mandated by the Islamic reforms of the 1980s, conflated Citizenship education with self-idealised Islamic values that were made a part of the national ideology in textbooks taught at schools, colleges and varsities. Prior to the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the Ministry of Education and Professional Training designed several national curricula. The textbooks had an excess of religious content, not just in religion education courses but also in history, mathematics, literature and natural sciences. There was no pedagogical emphasis on critical thinking.

The Education for All (EFA) movement in the 1990s advocated good quality primary education for children, free of cost. Like other developing countries, Pakistan responded positively to the initiative. Several measures have been taken since then such as the Education Sector Reforms (ESR) Action Plan for 2001-04 and National Plan of Action (NPA) for education, a long-term framework (2001- 15). However, despite these steps, the Human Development Index (HDI) and the quality of living as indicated by the GDP per capita at the time remained low. The most important factor for this, according to a study on the public expenditure on education in Pakistan, was the public sector’s inadequate distribution of resources to the education sector. This accompanied with the fact that the existing education budget was mostly used to meet recurring expenditures (such as teachers’ salaries) and development expenditure (necessary to generate future assets such as infrastructure for schooling, revamping teacher recruitment etc), constituted only 10 percent of the education budget in the Punjab and Sindh.

In 2010, the 18th Constitutional Amendment was introduced. Article 25-A called for guaranteeing every child’s (between the ages of 5-16) right to education. The government prepared a National Plan of Action to accelerate education-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Education for All (EFA) targets. However, conflicts and security issues have caused hindrances in the attainment of these goals greatly. Some terrorist groups have pursued a strategy of deliberately targeting civilians, especially teachers. As the security situation deteriorated and several military operations were launched in what are today called Merged Areas (former FATA) and in some settled districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This led to an exponential increase in attacks on schools (especially girls’ schools), teachers and civilians that caused many parents to wonder whether it was safe to send their children to school. School bombings, acid attacks and violence against students and teachers were rife. This led to a directing of more state resources to defence and diminishing of resources allocated to education.

Although the constitution has declared education a right for all, its manifestation has not been as categorical. In a study named Empirical Analysis of Educational Inequalities Found in Pakistan for the year 2014-15, researchers found more educational inequalities in rural areas than in urban areas, among females than in males, and between all regions of Pakistan (especially Balochistan and Sindh) and Islamabad. This may reflect the priorities of the state. Apparently, motives like affiliation with specific regions, voter support and personal biases have affected the education inequalities and outcomes.

Several attempts have been made to counter the education challenges in Pakistan, with a focus on Early Childhood Education (ECE). The provincial education departments, with the help and support from international donor and development agencies, have tried to scale the ECE as a foundation for the education system. But it has yet to meet the demand challenge on ground.

The country has always had one of world’s highest out of school-children populations. It has failed to aggregate a positive political demand and public pressure for education. Government spending on education is nowhere near the defense expenditure. The political and economic conditions required to increase budgetary allocations for education are not supported by the power elite. It seems that some vested interests do not want any sort of education for the children of this country.

The colonial education system that the state of Pakistan had inherited from the British rulers is outdated and corrupt but there is no political demand for reform. The elite have adopted a separate “foreign system” that caters to their needs. The future of Pakistan depends on the type of education the country imparts to its children, without any socio-economic discrimination.


Nadeem Hussain is a policy researcher and strategist. He is a co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh and Agents of Change

Qazi Muhammad Zulqurnain Ul Haq is an education evaluation specialist and a founding director of the Youth Centre for Research (YCR)



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