All the mainstream political parties fail to offer a single policy proposal that we can consider innovative or detailed enough to expect anything to change in the school or higher education sectors
With the 2018 elections staring us in the face, in this article I set forth to analyse the proposals and intellectual capital put into formulating the education policies of the three major national political parties in this cycle, namely the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI. While this may sound ambitious, I must sadly report that the latest materials put out by political parties on this vital national issue are, for the most part, sparse on details and sometimes an unstructured hodge-podge of self-contradicting proposals.
I considered the latest education policies put forward by these parties. Specifically, for the PML-N that is the education policy contained in their party manifesto for the 2018 elections released on July 5; For the PPP, I used its 2018 election manifesto; For the PTI, however, as of the time of this writing, the education policy on its website still links back to a presentation prepared around the 2013 elections.
Before I go into the most notable particulars of each party’s policy, I identify common agenda points. All three policies adhere to the two big themes – improving access to and quality of education. Most policy initiatives are provided like throwaway lines, i.e., single sentence statements with no details. All parties’ education policies pledge to increase access to school education, particularly for girls and special needs children, adult education programmes, distance learning/MOOCs, raising education spending to 4 per cent (PML-N) or 5 per cent (PPP, PTI) of GDP and provide grants/loans/scholarships.
To enhance the quality of education, all parties propose to enhance pre and in-service teacher training programmes and develop and track education-quality, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) (a daunting task by itself) and teaching critical thinking skills.
All three parties’ policies also appear to be united on one other important front: Reviewing the curriculum, decentralising of education, yet maintaining a grip on school textbook contents. It strikes as odd that whereas all three parties’ seem to be aware (at least superficially) of modern trends in education (i.e., outcome based education, critical thinking, creativity, devolution of decision-making, etc.), none wish to relinquish control over textbook contents. We cannot hope for improvements at a fast pace when the process of developing the curriculum and textbooks is monopolised by the education bureaucracy.
A better way would be to adopt the model of many Western countries, where education departments develop the syllabus, but leave the development of curriculum and textbooks up to competing publishers in the private sector. This competition produces better teaching materials than a government bureaucracy ever could. Unfortunately, all three parties are steering away from such a direction. However, the PTI policy presentation also contains an interesting slide (#27) which alludes to putting at least some part of curriculum development into the hands of the private sector which should give schools the option to choose their books.
It is worth mentioning that the PPP and PTI’s education policies are dedicated almost exclusively to school education, with higher education treated as an afterthought. The PPP’s education policy dedicated literally only three sentences to higher education. This tells us not to expect any major changes in higher education if either the PPP or the PTI roll into power. In contrast, while the PML-N’s education policy is also sparse on details, its policy initiatives are evenly split between school and higher education.
The PML-N’s education policy, according to 2018 election manifesto, distinguishes itself from that of the PPP’s 2018 and the PTI’s 2013 policies in that it devotes almost 50 per cent to higher education.
The PML-N’s school education policy initiatives are covered by all the throwaway lines listed earlier in the article and a mention of universal primary education and vocational training. Beyond that it does not offer anything new or specific.
The PML-N’s education policy does contain a long list of higher education policy initiatives though, some new, some old, and some near the end are so poorly phrased it seems they were tacked on just to fill up blank space on the page.
Regarding higher education, the PML-N pledges to raise enrollment, raise spending to 0.5 per cent of GDP and extend access to district level. It also pledges to train an additional 15,000 PhDs in science and technology disciplines, link Pakistani and Chinese universities, extend access to PERN (the Pakistan Education and Research Network), expand the US-Pakistan knowledge corridor and establish similar exchange programmes with the UK and Russia. Even today only roughly 50 per cent of university faculty positions that should be occupied by PhD holders are still held by underqualified people.
Furthermore, we cannot rely on the local university ecosystem to raise higher education standards organically, so programmes that will increase international engagement and exposure are also much needed and welcome. On the face of it, these proposals are positive, but the lack of any meaningful details curbs our enthusiasm.
The policy also spells out a desire to create a competitive programme to raise the rankings of Pakistan’s top-ten universities to the level that they get included in the top-500 of an unspecified global ranking. If the goal of this policy is to raise the quality of education then chasing rankings is misguided and a waste of resources. Readers interested in the detailed argument against university rankings are referred to an earlier article "Futility of varsity rankings" on April 24, 2016 in The News on Sunday (http://tns.thenews.com.pk/futility-varsity-rankings).
Many points in the latter half of higher education policy are non-specific and gave a clear sense these were just fillers.
Bottomline: While it makes some sounds about challenges in the higher education sector and fixing them, the lack of details does not give us much hope. Be it school or higher education, the stated policy of the PML-N for 2018 is to "put the pedal to the metal".
While the PPP took the lead in announcing its education policy first, it also happens to be the least creative and least innovative compared to those put forward by the PML-N and the PTI in the past. It begins with the usual platitudes acknowledging the importance of education, accompanied by a handful of simple facts and figures describing the present state of literacy.
The PPP’s education policy distinguishes itself from those of its rivals in a few respects:
Deradicalising the curriculum: This is described as teaching empathy, compassion and civic engagement. This is a very welcome step and it is encouraging to see the PPP spend some political capital to make this statement. However, the document leaves the issue of unchecked madrassas untouched.
Youth leadership programme: Wants to bring back student unions and councils. While this sounds fine in principle, having seen the destructive effects of student politics and the thuggery that accompanies it on life in universities in earlier decades, I am very weary of any steps that will politicise university campuses and take us back to the 90s.
Internships guarantees programme: I am very critical of any government programme, like the National Internship Programme, that wants to foist internees on public or private sector organisations, especially with a guarantee.
Bottomline: There is not a single proposal we can consider innovative or detailed enough to expect anything to change in the school or higher education sectors. If I have to distill these proposals into a single phrase it would be "carrying on with business as usual".
As of this writing, the PTI has still not released an education policy updated for 2018. The closest relevant documents officially put out by the PTI on its website are a presentation dating back to the 2013 elections. For this reason I also looked at the PTI’s "100 days agenda" (http://www.insaf.pk/public/insafpk/news/imran-khan-reveals-100-days-agenda-pti-govt) which, however, contained nothing beyond one line about health and education.
The PTI’s education policy stands out for one good reason: Its statistics and figures describing the current state of the education sector paint a fuller and more detailed picture of the state-of-affairs in 2013. In addition to the overlapping policy points, the thrust of PTI policy is on a single point that sets it apart from its rivals.
It begins by lamenting the divide between English and Urdu medium schools, while acknowledging that "elite schools" (where we assume that the connotation of the word elite as used here is positive) use English as their medium of instruction. It goes on to acknowledge the importance of knowing English and its continuing use in university. However, instead of leaving parents the freedom to choose what is right for their children or pledging to improve the level of English teaching in schools, the PTI’s policy prescription is to handicap everyone by introducing Urdu/regional languages as the only mediums of instruction.
I am very critical of this policy because it will unnecessarily force all students to go through the same struggles of switching from Urdu to English as medium of instruction during critical high-school years which today only Urdu medium students have to endure. The stated goal of this policy is to introduce a single education system to be followed by all schools, private and public. As stated, this would effectively end the O-levels / IGCSE / A-levels in Pakistani schools.
To make matters worse, in the long term, the PTI also pledges to switch the medium of instruction in universities from English to Urdu, which will inevitably mean translating hundreds of thousands of books by foreign publishers (next to impossible) or producing a handful of inferior knockoffs for local use. The prospects of seeing this policy implemented are scary.
At the end the education policy presentation tacks on a number of special initiatives, one of which is a slide titled "university education" in a deck of 48 slides total. Notable among the points on this slide are proposals to make the HEC and universities "autonomous".
Bottomline: The significant points the PTI’s education policy struck us as poorly thought through, illiberal, reducing choices for students and parents and deliberately handicapping – "shooting oneself in the foot".
As of today if you were to vote on the basis of best education policy read, it will be a tough call to make!
The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She can be reached at [email protected]