“We need efficiency, no doubt, but we also need more money”

A conversation with Dr Faisal Bari on budgetary allocations for education

The News on Sunday (TNS): How much is the share of the education sector in the provincial budgets? What will it be spent on?

Faisal Bari (FB): For Sindh it is 18.5 percent; for the Punjab, 17.5 percent; and for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 21 percent. I do not have the figure for Baluchistan. But, it is likely to be in the same range - about 20 percent. It went up to 20-plus percent a few years back, but it is now, generally, a little below 20 percent. Education departments everywhere have a large share. This is because of the large salary budget they carry. They hire teachers. Teachers’ salaries are the main expense for any education department. Education departments tend to be one of the bigger departments in the provincial governments, in terms of personnel as well as (salary) budget.

TNS: Do you think the allocations correspond with the provincial needs? How do these needs compare province-wise?

FB: Given the millions of children in the 5-16 year age category out of schools across Pakistan, the resources allocated for education are definitely not enough.

Do remember that Article 25A of our constitution gives a basic right to free education to all children between the ages of 5-16. If 5-16 year olds are out of schools - and estimates of such children across Pakistan have gone up to 20 million - how can current allocations be enough? Even if you define ‘need’ as a resource base that is enough for servicing and running the current education infrastructure, the current allocations are not enough. Across all provinces we still have teacher shortages; we still have multi-grade teaching even at the primary level; we still have subject-specialist shortages at high school level; we still have too many two-room primary schools (where 5-6 classes are held); we still have too many school building that are unsafe; we still have too many schools that do not have adequate boundary walls and functional bathrooms. How can we argue that this allocation is enough? There are two caveats here. One, some experts argue that we do not have the capacity to spend more and even allocated budgets are not fully used. To me, this does not mean that we are spending enough, it means that we need to raise our spending capacity. How can capacity arguments, over time when capacity can be built, be arguments for defining whether expenditure is optimal or not?

Two, some experts argue that we do not spend, what we do spend on education, very well. This is a reference to corruption as well as inefficient expenditure. I do not think there is ever any argument to say that we should not reduce corruption and increase efficiency. We should, and as priority. And provincial governments, through technology, monitoring and evaluation and system redesign have implemented significant reforms and these have, clearly, improved the situation a lot: teacher attendance is better, problem of ghost schools/teachers is down, etc. But, the fact still remains, even if we spend every rupee as it should be, the ‘needs’ are much larger and require more resources. To give one example, the Punjab needs some 80,000 more teachers. How can money efficiency create space for salaries for 80,000 teachers when most of the money is already going to the 400,000 teachers already employed? We do need to improve efficiency, no doubt, but we also need more money.

“With millions of children in the 5-16 year age category out of schools across Pakistan, the resources allocated for education are definitely not enough.

TNS: Have the governments set the right precedent for future budgeting and education related decisions through the 2021-2022 budget?

FB: This year’s budget for education is very much like the last year’s budget, across all provinces. The governments have marginally tweaked last year’s allocations and that is about it. There is no change of direction, no large new initiatives. It is the traditional ‘add-on’ way of doing budgeting: where you were spending 100 rupees, if you have 104 rupees now, you spend that. That is about it.

Have provincial governments moved in the direction of implementing 25A: Right to Education? The answer is “no”. 11 years after the inclusion of Article 25A in the Constitution, through the 18th Amendment, the answer is still a clear and resounding “no”. None of the provinces have any designs, plans, intentions and/or even dreams of implementing 25A.

TNS: The governments are saying the budgets are in essence people-friendly and growth-oriented. How does this translate when it comes to the education sector?

FB: The growth part must be related to the incentives given to industry and agriculture. There is nothing, in the budgets, about growth in education provision or improvements in service quality. The Punjab has announced a plan to upgrade a number of primary schools. This is very important. But it is still, relative to the needs, a fairly small project. It will not impact overall growth issues.

TNS: Please comment on the change of approach among provincial governments needed towards education.

FB: This is a difficult one to address. It will take very long. But in summary, I think we, as a country, need to decide whether we want to educate all of our children or not. It is promised in the Constitution but it is not being implemented. For growth and prosperity reasons, as well as for reasons of ‘rights’, every child should be educated. But then the provinces need to make plans about how they are going to do it. These plans need to have clear schedules, need to have yearly targets and need to be monitored closely. Just saying that children have a right to education is not going to make it happen. The plans for implementation of Article 25A should be the basis for provincial governments’ approach to education for the future. The rest can follow from there.

The writer is a staff member

“We need efficiency, no doubt, but we also need more money”