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Wednesday June 19, 2024

Rethinking education: From transmission to transformation

By Sheher Bano
June 08, 2024
A representational image showing school students attending a class. — AFP/File
A representational image showing school students attending a class. — AFP/File

In order to address the issue of out-of-school children (OOSC) in Pakistan, Mohyiuddin Wani, Federal Secretary of Education, recently chaired a high-level International Partners meeting. The meeting discussed the Prime Minister’s Education Emergency Initiative and aimed to establish the Education Reform Coalition to support the said initiative under the leadership of the Federal Education Secretary.

With an ownership of education from the Prime Minister’s office, the purpose of the move is to reduce 26 million out-of-school children to 9 million. The program also aims to making the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) a model for education, setting a precedent for other provinces to follow.

Javed Malik, the convenor of the Malala Fund, elaborated on the Fund’s engagement with the ministry, including initiatives such as establishing a book bank to print textbooks on alternate years. This will save an estimated amount of PKR 70 billion, which could then be redirected to fund programs in provinces like Sindh and Punjab.

A few days ago, the federal government in an unexpected move had issued a notification to reduce the recurrent budget of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for the financial year 2024-25 from Rs65bn to Rs 25bn and limited it to only federal universities.

Thankfully, according to a news report printed on June 05, 2024 in The News International, the federal government restored the current budget of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for the financial year 2024-25 to Rs 65 billion. HEC Chairman Dr Mukhtar Ahmed told The News that the federal government has withdrawn the decision to reduce the budget to Rs 25 billion and made it Rs 65 billion again.

He said now the HEC will be able to fund the universities of the provinces as usual. In this regard, the Ministry of Finance has also written a letter to the HEC chairman. According to Dr Mukhtar, the Planning Commission has also restored the development budget of the HEC to Rs59 billion, which was earlier reduced to Rs21 billion.

Though the government’s decision is a welcoming sign but even the current budget of Rs 65 billion is not enough to meet the current needs of the universities. Earlier, the HEC had sought Rs126bn for more than 160 public universities across the country.

In addition to tertiary level education, at primary and secondary education level too, paucity of funds, lack of trained staff, and lack of facilities in educational institutions pose serious challenges to ensure universal education for all.

Pakistan has seen many task forces formed at the highest level, and education emergency was declared in the country with almost no significant results. The reasons are many, including the way we define and impart education, whether at primary, secondary or tertiary level.

Academic scholars believe that education in our country is primarily structured learning, where the student plays a passive role in the learning process, absorbing whatever the teacher imparts and conforming to the teacher’s expectations during assessments.

Upon graduation and entry into the real world, individuals acquire knowledge in a voluntary and dynamic way, seeking out information based on their professional needs and personal interests. Curiosity is the catalyst for this type of learning, regrettably though, our youth lacks curiosity, or it has been stifled within them. As a nation we shy away from knowledge but pride ourselves on educational attainment, often equating degrees with intelligence. This discrepancy between educational achievement and genuine knowledge presents a serious challenge in Pakistan, where traditional approaches to education delivery persist at all levels.

The traditional or conservative approach sees education as a passive, neutral, and apolitical phenomenon which is simply a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, with little consideration for its broader implications.

Education, at its core, is the transfer of knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to another. But to view it as a neutral and passive process is to overlook its inherently political nature. Knowledge is not static; it is constructed and reconstructed daily. Similarly, students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled; they bring their own knowledge patterns and experiences to the learning process. And teachers, far from being omniscient, are just one source of knowledge among many.

Furthermore, the rapid pace of change in today’s world renders the idea of static knowledge obsolete. Values and skills that were relevant even 50 years ago may no longer hold true today. As such, there is a pressing need to rethink our approach to education and consider alternative models.

One such alternative model is presented by the concept of hegemony, as articulated by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony, derived from the Greek term meaning “dominance over,” refers to the subtle ways in which power is exercised through culture, education, and discourse. Unlike the coercive approach to control, which relies on force, hegemony operates through consent, shaping the way people think, feel, and perceive the world around them.

Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism further highlights the power dynamics at play in education. By essentialising and dominating narratives, Western scholars have historically imposed their worldview on the East, perpetuating a form of intellectual colonisation.

In response to the challenges mentioned above, scholars like Mehboobul Haq and Amartya Sen have advocated for a more holistic understanding of development. Sen, in particular, argues that development is not simply about economic growth but about expanding freedoms and capabilities. This includes access to education, healthcare, democracy, transparency, and security for all members of society.

From this perspective, education emerges as a powerful tool for social transformation, which empowers individuals and enhances their capabilities. This requires a shift from a focus on transmission to one on transformation, challenging societal taboos and inequalities.

Higher education is cited as a crucial element in creating a competitive knowledge economy in Pakistan’s Vision 2025 agenda. The national manifesto makes mention of several of the major initiatives of HEC’s Higher Education Vision 2025, including a considerable increase in spending on higher education from 0.2 per cent of GDP to 1.4 per cent of GDP. The Vision says the country would have “a balanced educational approach, politically united, economically sound and prosperous, morally and spiritually elevated nation’s programmes to meet the 21st century challenges.”

The Vision 2025 seeks to lay the foundation of a knowledge-based economy by promoting efficient, sustainable, and effective information and communications technology (ICT) initiatives. It also emphasises the role of e-education, e-commerce, e-health, and digital government in improving governance and public sector development and shows the country’s ambition in developing smart cities. The guiding theme for the policy is that ‘the Government shall be the facilitator and enabler to encourage the private sector to drive the development in IT and Telecommunications.”

The establishment of new science and technology universities and research technology parks, increasing research grants in the fields of energy, climate change, and food security, setting up more Research and Development Centres (RDCs), and focusing on applied research in scientific study exploration and commercial exploration of natural resources are all objectives of the Pakistan’s National Education Policy 2017-2025.

The ground realities are far from this lofty vision. Pakistan ranks 47th out of 68 countries in terms of sustainable development goals related to education, which call for inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. According to a report, out of 25 million people in the age bracket of 18-23, only 2 million are enrolled in higher education institutions. Among those who somehow complete their education, “one in three people are currently unemployed.”

Veteran educationist, Dr Shahid Siddqui, sees the state of education in Pakistan differently. “Historically, Pakistan has relied on patchwork solutions funded by various international donors. These projects, with fixed terms and agendas, often come with their own consultants forwarding specific agendas. Once the funding ends, progress stagnates.”

He calls for recognising the importance of education at state level. “Allocating a mere 1.7% of the total GDP to education is enough to show our lack of commitment to the cause. Unsurprisingly, this places us below all other South Asian countries in terms of educational outcomes. Given that literacy is directly linked to development, Pakistan’s economic indicators lag behind its regional counterparts.”

Regarding the single national curriculum policy, Siddiqui cautions, “While the national curriculum should provide guidance, provinces should retain autonomy in preparing textbooks that reflect their unique cultural contexts.

Siddiqui sees a complete lack of planning at higher education level. Degrees of MPhl and PhD are given in fields with limited job markets, leaving many youths unemployed. The next decade demands a focus on, transforming youths into job providers rather than job seekers.

“India serves as an example in the region, having anticipated global trends in IT and establishing premier technology institutes, where admission was extremely difficult. But the students who passed out of those institutes made their mark globally. Today, big platforms like FB, Google have Indian CEOs,” opines Siddiqui.

He notes with concern the absence of regular vice-chancellors in over sixty public sector universities of the country, including the prestigious Punjab University. “This negligence contradicts our aspirations of entering the 21st century. Strengthening public sector educational institutions in Pakistan is the only key to preparing students for the 21st century. There is a pressing need for reforms to foster a more dynamic and curiosity-driven learning environment that prepares students for the complexities of the modern-day world,” he maintained.

It is often said that in the future, illiteracy will not be defined solely in terms of inability to read. Rather, it will be characterised by the lack of ability to learn. In the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., an American activist and political philosopher: ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education,’; it is crucial that we prepare a future workforce that is not only educated and skilled but also possesses exemplary character on the global stage.

- The writer is staff member working as Editor Supplements and Special Reports. She can be reached at: sheheronline@gmail.com