Monday, March 24, 2008

Quality education for all

Dr Faisal Bari

Can a country compete in a global environment and develop as a fast growing economy without a literate, educated and trained workforce. The empirical evidence is clear: it cannot be done.

Then why are we hell-bent on trying to see if we can do it? Modern economies require sophisticated skills from a large number of people and it is impossible to acquire such skills without being literate. In fact, just being literate is often not enough; labour has to be educated to fairly high levels to give competitive advantage to a nation. When we say that developing countries have the advantage of cheap labour, it should be clear that it is not the money wage that matters, it is productivity, or produced amounts compared to wage given that matters. So, China is cheap to produce goods in because for the wages given to labour, the labour produces a lot and of high quality. India is able to attract some business on the same basis as well, as are a number of developing countries.

But a lot of businesses feel Pakistani labour is not cheap: though the wage rate for unskilled labour is only 2-3 dollars a day, the person is illiterate and unskilled and hence unable to provide input into producing quality products. Adding up the cost of either producing low quality products or producing high quality at an excessive cost (with high rejection rates and so on), Pakistani labour no longer remains as cheap - in productivity terms - as Chinese or Indian labour, even though they are paid more in simple dollar terms. So, how can Pakistan compete in this environment and how can we become competitive and sustain our growth trajectory?

The 'demographic dividend' that the previous government has been talking about, for the last couple of years, would be a demographic disaster if we do not invest in our people. There is a very strong non-functional argument for provision of education. Do people have a right to be educated and literate? Any notion of basic rights, that also comes with a notion that every citizen has a right to lead a life of dignity, will have to include some notion of education as a part and parcel of basic rights.

The question really is how much education should be considered a basic right: clearly as much as it takes to provide a life of dignity. And this might vary with the level of development of the society and its economy. For more advanced societies, anything below college education might not be enough, and for developing societies, education up to secondary level might be considered to be enough. But education, given the world we live, is necessary for a life of dignity: it is almost impossible to function in this world without some level of comfort with a couple of languages, the written word, and numbers.

The constitution of the country, in whatever form it is exists, recognises the rights of the citizen for access to education and health care facilities. It does not make these out to be the very basic rights, and so far we have not read the notion of 'right to life' as a right to what makes a life of dignity possible, but one feels that this is inevitable and one day the state will have to live up to the promise of providing education to all as a matter of right. The state in Pakistan not only does not recognise the right to education, if one looks at how the education policy has been implemented over the last many decades, it is also clear that the state never even intended to take the promise made in the constitution seriously. If we are going to spend only around 2 percent of GDP on education, how are we going to ensure that every child is going to be able to attend a school?

In fact the story of the last few decades is grim: the state seems to have given up on even trying to provide educational access to all. It has openly admitted, and many a time, that it cannot do it, and by making appeals to the private sector and the non-profit sector to help, it has repeatedly acknowledged its failure. And it has used the acknowledgement of failure as an excuse for pulling out of the responsibility of providing education to all as well.

But this cannot happen. It should be clear, and even empirically it is a fact that school education, the world over - in capitalist countries and others, in developed countries and others - is the responsibility of the state. It does not mean that the private sector cannot or should not participate in the education field; it can, but the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that children have decent access to education across the country lies squarely and unambiguously with the state. The Pakistani state cannot run away from this responsibility and duty.

But more is at stake here. Just opening up more schools is not the answer to the issues related to education. If the school does not have basic facilities and amenities, if the teacher does not show up, is not qualified, or does not teach properly, if the educational process, at the end (primary, middle, matric, and so on) does not provide a decent chance for the student to keep going forward to the next level and/or to become a part of the mainstream economy, it is not serving the purpose for which it was set-up.

Each and every child of this country has the right to have access to a quality of education that opens up doors for him or her to become a productive and contributing member of this society. If any child does not have that, if any school does not deliver this kind of education, we are not living up to the promise made in our constitution and we are not doing a service to the future of the country as this will just ensure that the 'demographic dividend' does not actually accrue to us. This sounds like a tall order but it is not. If Kerala can do it, if Sri Lanka can do it, if China can achieve this, and if any number of other countries, almost at the same level of development as we are, can do it, so can we.

The winning formula is not rocket science. We have, in a recent study, looked at some schools from the public sector, that, despite the poor financial and other conditions of our educational system, are still able to deliver reasonable quality of education to children and even in some of the poorest of communities. These schools had some of the basic amenities (building, roof, water, blackboards, books, and teacher and so on) that any school needs, but these were not what made the school tick.

In most cases it was a group of people who worried about the school, were committed to the school, the children and the educational process, were instrumental in motivating others about the school, were sometimes even instrumental in ensuring that the basic facilities were provided to it and were able to do all of this on a sustained and dynamic manner - providing an important feedback loop from performance to appreciation to performance. Most of the time this group had at least one or two teachers or the head-teacher in it, it usually had some members of the community in it as well, and sometimes even a committed education department employee was part of the group. And often there were a couple of people who provided leadership to the group.But these groups were organic to each school. Seldom did they come about through some fiat - like most school management committees, or parent committees that we once formed. And they helped make these schools integral parts of their communities. Many bureaucrats and politicians say we do not have the resources to provide quality education to all. It is true that we need to spend more on education, but given its importance, the more important question is, can we afford not to educate the children of the country?

Which would be more costly for the country, spending on quality education for all or dealing with an uneducated nation and work force? Equally importantly, one should keep in mind that though resources are important, they are not what are going to ensure the delivery of quality education to our children. It is developing the support, monitoring and mentoring network, at the level of each school that is going to be crucial. It is there that our main failing is occurring.

What is really needed is for a government to take delivering quality education to all as the most important challenge that it faces and then tackle it by increasing resources to education, but by also spending time to develop the networks that will be able to demand, sustain and develop delivery of quality education. Is there a government that will step forward and take this on?

The author is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Economics, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
(Courtesy The Nation)

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