Only 200 years ago, the difference in economic conditions among those living in different parts of the world was minimal. The innovation of the steam engine and other technologies in the early 18th Century in Britain provided Britain an advantage.
It was the industrial revolution with automated means of production that created imbalances in production levels and economic conditions across the globe. Countries which were able to adapt to the new technologies during the industrial revolution became richer compared to the rest of the world. The ability to create and utilise new technologies made all the difference in economic development.
Among other things, access to quality education and knowledge diffusion made a major contribution to this technological change in the developed world. Literacy rates in north-west Europe in 1800 were above 50 percent compared to below 0.5 percent in most Asian nations. The richer countries of Western Europe and the US are between 20 and 35 times richer compared to some developing countries in the world today. This increasing difference in wealth creation is due to knowledge accumulation and technological advancement in the past 200 years.
Education has played a very important role in developing economies and improving living standards across the globe. Improvements in education quality and access in Malaysia since 1979, renewed emphasis on technical and vocational education in South Korea from the late 1960s, and similar developments in Singapore and Taiwan contributed to the economic success of these newly developed nations.
Education reforms in China since 1978 along with technical and vocational education had a pivotal role in transforming this large populated country. Due to increased globalisation and improved technological advancement, China became the second largest economy in the world. The success of India in IT and auto industry is in part thanks to improvement in the availability of quality education to its population.
Pakistan has huge challenges in improving the quality and access to education for its citizens. The public education system has failed to provide quality education. The literacy rate in Pakistan (57.7 percent) is one of the lowest in the world (144th country out of 160). Primary enrolment is only 68.5 percent. A mere 15 percent of 15-16 year-olds are enrolled in secondary education and enrolment in universities of 18-23 year-olds is only 5.1 percent.
Lack of motivation and absenteeism among teachers, and poor school and district management also contribute to low quality-education and the low retention rate. There are no incentives for better performing schools nor any penalties for very poorly performing ones. Politically motivated teacher appointments have created a shortage of local school teachers in remote areas. Most of the teachers appointed in the rural areas reside in urban centres and lack motivation to move or travel to far-flung rural areas.
Private-sector education, which has expanded in the past 10 years, has provided much needed hope. The quality of education and rate of retention in private schools is overall better than in public schools. Private school teachers are on average less qualified and have less experience in education compared to their public-sector counterparts. Teacher salary in the public sector is five times higher when compared to private school teachers.
It is the local independent and empowered management of the private sector which makes all the difference. The private sector has fewer financial resources available compared to the public sector.
Pakistan has a huge gap to fill not just in improving its literacy rate – which only represents primary education – but also in improving access to secondary, higher, university and vocational education. With GDP growth peaking at between four and five percent, which is partly due to the low rate of educated and skilled population in the country, Pakistan lacks the much needed funding to kickstart education reforms.
Part of the gap can be filled in the short and medium terms with encouraging and subsidising private education, especially in the urban areas of the country by taking the following steps. The first and most urgent need is ensuring the primary enrolment rate goes up to 100 percent.
The provincial governments need to identify non-enrolled primary age children and enforce Article 25-A for each 5-16 year-old child. Computerisation of birth certificates and enrolment with birth certificate numbers can help in this identification and enforcement exercise.
Private schools can also be encouraged to set up shop in identified targeted areas to admit previously non-enrolled children. Provincial governments should bear the school fees of identified non-enrolled children. The government can pay the children’s fee into the parent’s bank account. The cost to the government of providing private school fees will be much lower than building and managing schools in the short to medium term. Private school retention rates are much better than government schools and the same enrolled children will improve the rate of secondary education.
The government needs to set up strong independent provincial education regulators with representatives in all districts. The regulator should assess the quality of education of each private and public school against standard national attainment levels. It should also assess school services such as clean drinking water, hygiene standards, child nutrition and sport facilities against agreed minimum standards.
The government should divert its education development resources (saved in urban areas due to private education intervention) to remote villages where the private sector may not be keen to invest. Targeted teacher recruitment from the local area for a specific local school would improve teacher presence and motivation in new village schools.
The intervention through the private sector will give the government time to introduce much-needed education reforms in public-sector education. Local sub district and school level empowerment, performance competition between schools and pre-agreed performance targets evaluated by the education regulator each year can be some of the steps that can improve public-education sector.
Public-sector education is vital for the long-term education needs of the country. It needs to be reformed to meet the economic challenges and opportunities presented by globalisation and increasing international and regional competition. Knowledge and skill diffusion can contribute towards reducing inequalities.
The writer is a London-based freelance contributor.