Will the dream of free education ever materialise?

October 22, 2023

Bold questions must be asked about education financing in Pakistan

Will the dream of free  education ever materialise?


earning Poor and Out of School Children are two umbrella terms that subsume multiple layers of exclusion and inequity; these are major metrics to contend with. Learning Poor is pegged to all 10-year-olds in the country who are unable to read with comprehension a simple text in any language; today, in Pakistan, 8 out of 10 children are in this category. The number of OOSC, whether never enrolled or dropouts, has risen to 28 million from 19.9 million (2022) with a runaway population growth rate of 2.55 percent (2023). The two terms highlight an ongoing social and economic catastrophe for Pakistan nuanced by gender, geography and wealth across the country.

If action is not taken, this puts to risk not just a generation, as highlighted in an editorial recently, but perhaps several generations. More importantly, do we know what it will cost to address these challenges in Pakistan through its devolved structures, some in deep domestic debt and with an overall abysmal economic growth rate of 0.3 percent (Economic Survey of Pakistan 2022-23)? Growth rates are clearly not favourable for the development of Pakistan’s children, be it, economic, population, nutrition, Learning Poor or OOSC. All of this conflates into a major human development poly-crisis for a country already in the front line of climate change disasters (5th on the Global Risk Index), urbanisation, congested urban slums and inflation crises. This pushes large chunks of the population into extreme vulnerability, poverty and churning poverty, where women and girls bear the most hardships The labour force surveys highlight a growing number of 10-17 year olds in the labour force, where children’s work is officially recorded through registered entities, whilst a majority of out of school children are working in the informal unregistered sector, often in the worst forms of child labour.

Will the dream of free  education ever materialise?

Thirteen years later, since Article 25-A made its long-awaited entry to the constitution for 5-16-year-olds as a fundamental right, state actions are simply not adding up. Five laws are in place – four in the provinces and one in the Islamabad Capital Territory – but only one is complete with notified rules (Sindh). Three laws (ICT, Sindh and the Punjab) have boldly stretched the limits of 5-16 to 3-16 year-old children making room for early childhood education (ECE) as a strong progressive stance. However, they are still unable to allocate and spend what it takes to implement a fundamental right backed by adequate and timely resourcing. Net enrollment rates range from 62 percent to 17 percent for primary, middle and secondary levels of education with facilities dwindling at post primary levels and under pressure due to repeated emergencies. A case in point is the recent tragedy involving over 32,000 destroyed or partially damaged schools during the monster floods of 2022 that are still in a fragile condition exposing students and teachers to extreme risks. Aid for Pakistan is dwindling together with domestic resources for education and learning. This is reflected in the expenditure trends for education recorded by the government itself that track the implementation of Article 25-A and SDG 4 since 2015.

What does the Article 25-A legislation cover on education financing? Each of the five laws have a section on definitions at the outset defining the government of the province and local authority/ local government as the twin administrative authority to ensure implementation of Article 25-A. The provincial and the local governments are stated to have concurrent authority to ensure that the right to free and compulsory education is met from class one to ten, non-formal education, vocational education or a combination of all or any of the two as notified by the government considering the needs, capability and age of the child so as to ensure completion of education or specified education in a school in the neighbourhood or the school allocated for the child. In the case of the Punjab, Sindh and the ICT, this extends to all children with disabilities as well as early childhood to access facilities in the neighbourhood with set standards and norms, and information on tracking each child.

Will the dream of free  education ever materialise?

Tragically, the local governments remain in abeyance in Pakistan. Sharing of financial responsibilities is clearly stipulated under duties for the provincial and local governments, as the responsible entities for providing funds for fulfilling state obligations to establish schools with infrastructure and all facilities – teachers and training, an enabling learning and teaching environment without any discrimination. They are charged with the capacity to estimate capital/ recurring costs, including double shifts/ evening schools; finding resources and encouraging enterprises and civil society through grants, rebates in taxes and incentives to establish, maintain and run schools that are free. This aims to devise a system of grants in aid to support the child’s right to quality education, especially disadvantaged groups. In the case of the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Taleem Fund is to be established to mobilise local resources and philanthropy by the school councils at the school level. The government also takes the responsibility of ensuring that private sector shares the burden of 10 percent spaces/ enrollment for children in need, free of cost.

Sadly, none of the provinces or ICT are formally implementing Article 25-A, albeit, there are initiatives of no child out of school and foundational learning currently ongoing in ICT – an area open to rapid migration of fragile groups and refugees.

From 2015, there has been a declining trend in education financing, officially documented by the government of Pakistan as a fraction of the GDP. There is evidence of expenditure on education sliding from 2.0 percent to 1.4 percent (2020-21) before rising to 1.7 percent (2021-22/ provisional). This is contrary to UNESCO’s recommendation of 4 percent and the National Education Policy (NEP) 2009 commitment of 7 percent of GDP. Gross allocations may be increasing, but spiralling inflation (36.4 percent according to State Bank of Pakistan April, 2023) is leading to absolute decline in net expenditure and value for money.

Bold questions must be asked. Why is education such a low priority? Why does a social investment not have any political, bureaucratic and economic clout? Why is it not part of the nation-building imagination and action? Why are the sums so wrong and spending so ineffective? Why are the excuses so many to evade human resource development as an anchor entitlement? Why has education financing fallen off the planning and budgeting curve? Why have innovative financing instruments remained limited to public private partnerships, at best? Why is the private sector, which contributes, snubbed? It is time to ask and seek answers for these questions through open and technical public debates. The answers need to be integrated in policy and, more importantly, to reverse the current trends in education financing and expenditures.

With Pakistan allocating a mere 1.4-1.7 percent of its GDP to education – economic growth rates are not expected to move beyond 0.29 percent in 2023 – it does not augur well for millions of Pakistan’s children, who are added to the population stock annually. Education financing remains precarious in the way it is mobilised and executed. For any tangible change, it is recommended that education financing be increased substantively to at least 5.4 percent according to the World Bank’s Human Capital Review (2023) with more effective spending approaches. Financing for education must be made a bolder investment for girls’ and women’s education, from early years to vocational and tertiary education for lifelong and multi-generational impact.

The writer is the CEO of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, a Pakistan Learning Festival founder and an Education Commission commissioner. She can be reached at baela.jamil@itadec.org

Will the dream of free education ever materialise?