The crisis of education governance and 18th Amendment

Durdana Najam

Prime Minister Imran Khan had the vision to see Pakistan thrive on a system that provides equal opportunities to everyone, especially in education and justice. A vital education and judicial governance system also provides a corrective mechanism to realign other social sectors such as health. Khan talks vehemently against so-called ‘mafias,’ mostly the elite, and why they should be eliminated for an equitable society - but it seems his wings can only soar so much.

Despite failings in other sectors, it seems in the education sector, he has been able to raise the ante against the ‘mafia’ and the entrenched system that had been the recipe for division among people along academic lines.

The Single National Curriculum (SNC) is the new talk of town. Private schools, madrassas, and public schools will now be teaching a similar syllabus. Last week, the new curriculum and education policies were unveiled in several ceremonies. But there is a caveat that no one is talking about: the 18th Amendment.

The education governance system in Pakistan has always been in disarray; however, it suffered a severe blow after the 18th Amendment, which was an exercise to dissect constitutional interventions made during military rule and abolish the concurrent legislative list. The Act which passed in 2010 unanimously, provided provinces with strong legislative and financial autonomy in health, education, and other social sectors. As for education, Article 25A was additionally inserted in the fundamental rights section of the constitution. It says: “Right to education: The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of 5-16 years in such manner as may be determined by law.” This vast undertaking is in line with Sustainable Development Goal no. 4 regarding education. SDG-4 desires its signatories to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.

According to a Social Policy and Development Center’s report on the educational status of Pakistan published in February 2021, the 18th Amendment has put a severe dent in education. The comparison between the pre and post 18th Amendment on the access to education indicator revealed that if previously access to education stood at 3.7 percent, after the 18th Amendment, it fell to 2.2 percent. The situation has been worse in Sindh, which fell from 2.9 percent to 0.3 percent. Punjab and KP showed a similar downward trajectory at 2.9 percent and 3.8 percent from the previous 4 percent and 3.8 percent respectively.

Multiple issues beset Pakistan’s education system, such as insufficient public spending, high dropout rates, and acute gender and regional inequalities. In terms of quality, the challenge the education system faces ranges from teacher absenteeism to weak management and supervision structure, shortage of trained and qualified teachers, lack of a professionally dedicated faculty, and last but not least, lack of physical facilities hampering the growth of auxiliary activities like sports.

These issues are prominent in public sector institutions, which enrol 70 to 80 percent of the country’s children.

There could be merit to Imran Khan’s vision of introducing an SNC as the stepping stone to an equitable education system in the country, but splashing it as the anecdote to all that ails the education sector is hyperbolic. Notwithstanding the effort to make teachers’ assessment system online and starting double shifts to get more enrolment in schools, the assurance that it will stop the dropout rate, which is usually high in class five students, has not been ascertained. The student dropout rate is correlated to poverty, which has risen significantly in recent years. According to the World Bank’s estimate, 40 percent of households in Pakistan suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity in Pakistan.

Another area where education is being used for political mileage is opening universities at district levels. Ministers walk in the Higher Education Commission and seek consent for a university in their constituency. But most universities are sitting idle due to a lack of students, faculty, or facilities. The concept of the university is to build a land for research and development and not some island of hope. The result is that the funds, which could be used on productive academic activities, are wasted on dead projects.

Education is not about the curriculum or building more schools. It is about developing an attitude for learning and knowledge through an inclusive and democratic system of education. In this regard, the 18th Amendment has become a burden that needs to be revisited.