The Challenge of Educational Reform in Pakistan

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DURING THE LAST DECADE, Pakistan’s declining educational
system has raised serious concern at the national and
international levels. This concern relates to the explosive
rise of militancy, extremism and violence in the country. A
major segment of discourse is devoted to establishing the
linkage between the religious-based schools, known the as
madrassas and their contribution to the rise of suicide terrorism
and extremism in Pakistan. The need for reforming
educational system of Pakistan has been acknowledged at
the highest levels. Since the passage of the Kerry-Lugar bill
in the US Congress, the Obama administration is attempting
to invest billions of dollars in Pakistan for socio-economic
development to curtail the spread of extremism in
the country. The last few years have seen massive outpouring
of funding from international governments, financial
institutions, donors and non-governmental organizations
(NGOs). In this article I briefly discuss the scope, content
and focus of these reform efforts. Moreover, I consider
reform of the public sector educational institutions as the
key step in stabilization of Pakistan.
Pakistan is a typical “Third World” country which
scores very low in various indices of socio-economic
development. On the educational front, Pakistan has one
of the lowest literacy levels in South Asia, with significantly
high drop-out rates and wide disparities in the quality
and provision of education along the lines of gender, ethnicity
and class. The current educational system of the
country is divided into three different kinds of institutions—
public sector schools, private institutions and the
madrassas. The predominant discourse on educational
reform focuses on the latter and holds it singularly responsible
for rising extremism in the country.
According to various estimates provided in different
studies, enrollment in religious schools in Pakistan has
declined considerably during the last two decades. It has
been suggested that at present, less than one percent of
Pakistani children enroll in madrassas. The Musharraf
government, following 9/11 and the US invasion of
Afghanistan, launched efforts to modernize the Pakistani
religious schools. The focus has been on the role of
madrassas in churning out disillusioned youth who
become foot soldiers for extremist outfits and engage in
acts of violence. Here we need to remember that the current
generation of religious schools with its emphasis on
war-mongering and puritanical values is traced back to the
early 1980s. This was the time when the US and Saudi
Arabia invested heavily in Pakistan to launch a proxy war
against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many of the current
leaders of terrorist groups received their training and
socialization in these madrassas during the 1980s. Thus
madrassas became a laboratory for experimentation by the
national and global elites. Under the recent reforms, the
Pakistani governments have attempted to revise the curriculum
of the religious schools and bring them under the
control of central authorities. However, I believe that these
measures will not be enough to over-turn the tide of growing
militancy and radicalization.
Though the madrassas as have been the subject of significant
attention and are viewed as key to issues of
extremism, this is misleading. I see the need for greater
reform of public sector institutions in Pakistan. The vast
majority of ordinary Pakistanis send their children to public
schools. During the last three decades, the quality and
efficiency of these schools has seriously declined. As a
result, the graduates from these institutions are simply not
equipped to compete with better-prepared children from
private educational institutions. This leaves a wide group
of citizens in the cold and makes them vulnerable to influences
from renegade terrorist outfits and outlawed groups.
These groups capitalize on the disillusionment and alienation
of the youth and indoctrinate them in extremist ideologies.
Significant attention has been focused on the distorted
content of the textbooks in public sector schools
that spreads an intolerant, exclusive and hard-line worldview
amongst the children. This includes mythical and
factually inaccurate accounts of the creation of Pakistan,
glorified views of Islamic history and a seemingly
unbridgeable gap between Muslims and other religious
communities such as Hindus, Christians and Jews. This
indoctrination has served the strategic objectives of Pakistani
establishment that has been preoccupied with incessant
conflict with India and the need to establish a pro-
Pakistani government in Kabul in order to gain strategic
depth on the Western frontier. The disastrous consequences
of these policies are beginning to emerge in the
spread of violence into major urban centers of Pakistan. In
this climate, the reform and modernization of Pakistani
educational institutions, especially in the public sector,
has gained monumental significance. Revising the school
textbooks to provide a fairer, inclusive version of history
and promotion of religious co-existence and tolerance
deserves to be emphasized. However, content reform
alone will not be sufficient to curb the tide of growing radicalization
in Pakistan. This requires serious commitment
and investment of huge resources into the educational sector
which has unfortunately not been the case so far.
More than mere reform of the text books is needed. The
Pakistani state needs to live up to its constitutional responsibility
of promoting the welfare of its citizens and provide
them with basic necessities of life. Herein lies the strategic
significance of socio-economic development of Pakistan.
The challenge of educational reform is a key component of
this challenge. There is dire need to reform government
schools and bring in highly motivated, trained and wellpaid
teachers who can enable the graduates of these institutions
to compete successfully against children trained in
the elite private schools. There is certainly need to eliminate
hateful extremist and violent indoctrination from
these books.
At present, education receives extremely low share of
resources from the government. The huge defense budgets
which have failed to provide security to the ordinary citizens
need to be curtailed to devote long-term resources for
socio-economic development of Pakistan. This will have a
huge impact on the prospects of stability of Pakistan and
the wider region.

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