The changing political economy of education

January 29, 2023

It is essential to understand that the absence of affordable and quality education for all is first a political problem

The changing political economy of education


ate last year, I was honoured to join a group of researchers, teachers, administrators, and activists for education in something called the South-South Fellowship — with technical support from Brazil’s Leman Foundation and Oxford University. The South-South Fellowship connects the education communities from Kenya, Brazil and Pakistan to help generate collaborations and lesson-learning across contexts with greater similarity to each other than what we normally get when donor programmes invest directly in efforts to change the status quo in education.

Almost exactly a decade ago, in February 2013, a few colleagues and I had begun working on one such effort — a campaign to establish the place of education in the public discourse. The campaign was called Alif Ailaan. For over five years, and across two general elections, Alif Ailaan helped mobilise an unprecedented spotlight on education in Pakistan. In August 2018, the campaign ended. Funded by the UK government, under what was then the Department for International Development or DFID, Alif Ailaan achieved everything it was supposed to achieve — but critics rightly ask many questions about whether this was good enough.

The current state of education in Pakistan doesn’t leave a lot of room for debate. From basic literacy programmes at the provincial governments to the university regulator in Islamabad (the Higher Education Commission), the education discourse is messier, more convoluted and less effective today, than it was when the Alif Ailaan campaign ended. The most fervent supporters of the campaign approach argue that this is because Alif Ailaan should have continued — and its closure was a strategic mistake. Some other thoughtful critics have a range of questions about how useful any donor-funded intervention can ever be in altering the fundamental politics that shape education in Pakistan. As with so much else in life, the reality rests somewhere between those two broad camps.

In the South-South Fellowship, a group of education sector leaders from government, the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors are trying to create convergences for collaborations that are not reliant on external – multilateral or bilateral – financing. This is only possible because of some heroic bureaucrats that are part of the group — under the leadership of Baela Raza Jamil of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi. Will a small group of change agents be able to do what successive governments, numerous great organisations like The Citizens Foundation and Shehzad Roy’s incredible Zindagi Trust, and thousands of community activists, researchers and teachers have not?

The rather depressing answer should be obvious, but isn’t. The existing ecosystem of education providers — madrassahs, elite private schools, low-cost private schools, government schools, television and radio educational content, and the spectrum of Pakistani universities and colleges — has failed, is failing and will continue to fail. This is not breaking news. Neither is the fact that education financing is low — and inadequate by every metric imaginable — unless we invest in the fiction that Pakistan can magically do what no other nation ever has. Indeed, perhaps the most widely known and accepted truth about education is that the public sector cultivates permanent jobs for teachers, but invests almost nothing in their capabilities and even less in holding them to account for learning outcomes can produce exactly what Pakistani families get from government schools: not much at all.

With the kind of private money that Pakistanis now spend on education — by some estimates, as much as 1.4 percent of the GDP each year, and at least another 2 percent of the GDP being spent by the government — the returns on education are already the subject of much hand-wringing by austerity hawks that would happily starve the system of even these limited investments.

The premise for campaigns that seek to mobilise social and political capital in favour of easy-to-digest grand propositions — like universal enrolment or generic improvements in the quality of education — is solid. But the execution is complicated. An absence of affordable, high-quality education to all citizens is a political problem first and foremost. Of course, it is also a problem of technical capability, of financial resources and of public administration systems — but these are second-order problems. Without a politics that underscores the net present value and the altered future trajectory of a Pakistan with dramatically improved learning outcomes for its young people, there is no amount of money, no quantum of teachers’ training and no investment in technology that will do the trick.

Alif Ailaan helped mobilise existing political incentives and helped them converge towards a common framework — but within months into the end of the campaign, convergence on education became a distant dream. What happened? Toxic political differences meant that even on issues of common ground, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and its opponents had no oxygen to sit down and talk. Efforts to bulldoze a largely reasonable set of curriculum reform became branded with the extraneous populist noise that the ruling party from 2018 through 2022 insisted on. The result was what populism always delivers: a quick win for politicians and bureaucrats aligned with the sitting leadership, but a fractured and much more divided education reform community than before.

Over the last several months, any political capital that the coalition government had has been burnt away in a blaze of inflationary infamy. Education is not a primary, secondary, nor even a tertiary afterthought in the public discourse. A donor-funded effort like Alif Ailaan may have kept some semblance of the issues, at least superficially alive — but the quantum of politics required to enact 21st Century reform in a 19th Century system would be beyond the capacity of Alif Ailaan — or even multiples of such efforts.

Given that 2023 is an election year, the education reform community will have to revisit some of the lessons we have learnt from countries like Brazil in their journey to becoming highly literate. A theory of change for education has to be innate to the place and time in which reform is being pursued. Brazilian educators are more versed in Paolo Freire than Pakistani poets are in Ghalib or Iqbal. Donors and financial institutions, from multilaterals like the International Finance Corporation to private equity funds, and sovereign wealth funds can all help. Pakistan will have a population of over 350 million by the time it turns 100 years old. The unmet education and skill needs of Pakistan represent an enormous market. Capital is like water; it flows to where there is least resistance.

The basic technology for education is changing. The schoolhouse model of teachers in classrooms with students was disrupted in an unprecedented fashion by Covid-19. The learning losses from Covid-19, even in advanced learning ecosystem countries, like Finland and Singapore, have been substantial. The damage to learning outcomes in Pakistan is unspeakable — and because education is not a Pakistani political issue, at all, it is also immeasurable. Education statistics were stalled almost for the entire duration of the previous government. Education is not like the national grid — repaired and rebooted in less than 24 hours. It is a decades-long canvas. In places that have done better than Pakistan, this canvas has been painted on by local governments, by philosophers and indeed by the religious communities that shape those countries. Such coalitions are not even conceivable in Pakistan today. But they should be. There is no better time to dream of large-scale change than an election year. To the next election!

The writer is senior fellow at Tabadlab, a policy think tank in Islamabad

The changing political economy of education