Revisiting education at 75

A just and egalitarian approach is needed for equitable access to education

Revisiting  education at 75


his year Pakistan turns seventy-five. An average person the same age today has seen three generations grow up before. Factoring in socio-economic divisions, the diversity in this multi-generational population increases further. This begs the question whether Pakistan’s journey thus far means the same for all its citizens.

Traversing seven decades of its independent existence, Pakistan’s education landscape requires a thorough revisit. The country, vowing to provide education for all, echoes the mantra of socio-economic egalitarianism that ideally benefits the middle class. 75 years down the line, it is time to evaluate if education that underpins social mobility has enabled the desired social equity. The revisit can begin by reconsidering the approach to education planning in Pakistan’s K-12 and four-year undergraduate education, which serve as stepping stones to economic empowerment.

In view of economic returns for investment in education, universities have assumed an important role in societal development. They have the potential to build human capacities, enhance employment, enable innovation and promote good governance. The earlier years of education serve as a preparatory ground for the tertiary level, which eventually connects with socio-economic participation. Considering the connection across multiple stages, it is important to determine if this stage sees what the feeder stage ought to prepare and send forth.

Education planning in Pakistan is disconnected across several stages of its education system. These stages are relatively more pronounced for public education, where primary school is distinct from secondary education, followed by college and then tertiary education. In the case of private schools, there is no disconnect between the primary and secondary stages since the transition is mostly smooth. Discourses around education in the development sector often consider important aspects of quality, access and equity. Unfortunately, the focus on education provision often remains divided between stages viewing each in isolation. This divided approach disregards an interconnection and interdependence between various stages that can hamper students’ educational journey passing through multiple choke points.

According to its Vision 2025, Pakistan aims to attain the status of an upper-middle income country by the year 2025. This requires building human capital, which in turn requires investing in higher education. Pakistan has vowed to increase its expenditure on tertiary education from the current 0.2 percent of the GDP to around 1.4 percent by 2025. The national education policy 2017 says that the state shall provide access to professional, vocational and tertiary education on merit. Unfortunately, according to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020, Pakistan’s gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education remains 9 percent against Afghanistan’s 10 percent, India’s 28 percent, Maldives’ 31 percent and Nepal’s 12 percent. Moreover, the percentage of gross enrolment is also lower for Pakistan than that of Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Although the percentage of gross enrolment in tertiary education has remained dismal, there has been a general increase in student enrolment from 276,000 in 2001 to almost 1.29 million in 2014-15. The government aims to further increase this to 5 million by 2025. This apparent increase in enrolment in tertiary education is optics of egalitarian higher education access since the choice of education institute is defined by one’s financial position. Admission in quality tertiary institutes has remained not only a testing ground for merit, but also an evaluation stage for one’s financial standing, leaving relatively lower quality options for the underserved. In many instances, the completion of tertiary education is also greatly impacted by one’s socio-economic position. According to the UNESCO, the rate of tertiary education completion in Pakistan between 2008 to 2015 was 32 percent for the richest and 1.5 percent for the poor.

The idea of merit certainly presents the most justifiable and pragmatic approach to educational justice. However, it sidelines the struggles of the underprivileged students and the way they navigate their path through multiple stages of education.

Universities and governments often offer scholarships to exhibit egalitarianism and to ensure that their student body remains diverse and that students’ education is not disrupted based on their financial backgrounds. This invites an academic discussion on the idea of accessibility based on merit and the notion that individual capabilities tested in a meritocracy are a product of circumstantial advantages. This is where K-12 education comes into play. Unfortunately, access to every level of education is circumstantial. Hence the connecting chain of these circumstances does not always result in an egalitarian output – that is, equitable access to the multi-stage education system in Pakistan.

A child born in an underserved community will most often go to a public or low-cost private school. On the other hand, a privileged child will most likely study in a costly private school that will certainly rank higher in terms of quality education. These differences in quality education pile up at every stage owing to circumstantial choices and reflect differences in student competence and learning. Seventy percent of the students in public schools drop out until they reach matric. Those who survive have to compete against students from private schools initially for quality public colleges and later for private colleges if they are affordable. The same contestation continues eventually to secure admission in undergraduate education.

The idea of merit certainly presents the most justifiable and pragmatic approach to educational justice. However, it sidelines the struggles of the underprivileged students and the way they navigate their path through multiple stages of education. For instance, differences in quality education during matric render underprivileged children unprepared for higher secondary education. If they do manage to secure the required percentage and enter a college, their affordability leaves them with public colleges where compromised quality is padded through coaching centres. If they manage to complete their higher secondary and in case they are eligible for quality tertiary institute, they fail to pass entrance exams which test students’ competence in English language, mathematics or other subjects depending upon the desired field of further studies. These struggles reflect that the underprivileged students require an education booster or equaliser at every transitionary stage to ensure that they are fit to compete against those who did not have to put this extra effort.

Education planning in Pakistan, therefore, demands a renewed language and concentration where disparate focus on the constituent stage is also complemented with a systemic approach to encapsulate a multi-level education trajectory. Holistic education planning should look at the requirements of every stage and the preparedness needed to be attained by the preceding stages. Considering the circumstantial differences, there need to be alternative learning pathways in place to ensure that the playing field is levelled across the board irrespective of one’s socio-economic position. Without this approach, no matter how many scholarships are provided by universities, egalitarianism will remain a distant goal.

Economic prosperity underpins quality human resource development. The path to this human development should not be restricted to the privileged. Poor students have long suffered from poor quality education, but from school to college completion and then to tertiary education, the gap is growing. With educational success defining one’s economic participation, future employability and a means to cross class barriers; its inequitable access is only serving as a system perpetuating and fortifying class differences. To ensure that every passing year post-independence means the same for all, we need a more just and egalitarian outlook for collective societal progress.

Nadeem Hussain is an economic and education policy researcher and strategist. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Agents of Change (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Qazi Muhammad Zulqurnain Ul Haq is an education evaluation specialist and a founding director of Youth Centre for Research (YCR).

Data Insights by: Data Pilot —an organisation that helps businesses in extracting meaningful insights from data.

Revisiting education at 75