With elections just around the corner, all political parties are now in the final stages of their election campaign. All major political parties have unveiled their election manifestos, promising the moon to their voters – and the ardent followers of our political leaders have swallowed all the promises hook line and sinker without questioning the intent, veracity or even the possibility of making well on these grandiose future promises. Most election manifestos have promised an economic upturn, more jobs, security and a bright future, but for some odd reason education or any education reform does not seem to be very high on the list of future plans of our political parties.
Educationists and political analysts have by now compared and analysed the manifestos of the political parties in the election arena and ironically the education policy of all contestants leaves a lot to be desired. It appears that our political leaders lack a basic understanding of budgetary realities and the urgent requirements of our national educational aims and objectives. The PML-N in its 2024 manifesto promises to increase education spending to 4% of the GDP but fails to explain how it is going to do something which it was unable to do during its previous government (2013–2018) -- a period with much better economic indicators. And so, this claim appears rather dubious and farfetched in the wake of an extremely weak economy that may continue for the entire tenure of the next elected government. Their manifesto then goes on to promise safe transportation for every student without considering the cost of such a gigantic national project or where the resources are going to come from. Another impractical promise is about opening evening schools when under the 18th amendment, education is now a provincial subject and the federal government cannot implement something that it is not authorized to do by the constitution. Even if the PML-N could form a government in all the provinces, which is highly unlikely, how will they get the teachers and the financing for this project?
The education part of the manifestos of four major political parties, the PML-N, PPP, PTI and JI have promised to raise government expenditure on education to 4 or 5% of GDP – at a time when the current expenditure is well below 2% of GDP
Private education in Pakistan is big business that has prospered because of the great incentives provided by the Government. such as allotment of low cost land and easy loans to school owners and the corporate sector in the country has exploited resources in the name of education that has enriched the school owners and increased the class divide in society without any improvements in education standards or benefit to the poorer segments of society. Danish Schools, an initiative that was launched by the PML-N’s Punjab government in 2010, have been performing better for years, but these places are small islands of excellence and benefit a limited number of pupils. When millions of children are out of school, focusing on a couple of thousand students is not a good idea.
Many private schools that have become big businesses now, originally benefitted from government-backed initiatives like the allotment large areas of land for schools and low-cost loans. Perhaps it is better to call it public and ‘non-profit’ sector partnerships so that the for-profit corporate sector does not exploit resources in the name of education, especially at a time when the class divide in society continues to expand. The promise of establishing a national commission on education is another vague promise when what is needed are provincial commissions on education so as not to interfere in the areas reserved for the provincial government.
Similarly, talk about developing a national action plan for artificial intelligence (AI), STEM, machine learning (ML) and technology-driven education appear more to be wishful thinking than a doable plan. More than half of our children are unable to do basic literacy and numeracy exercises, and here we are talking about AI and ML!
The election manifesto of the PPP promises to allocate at least 5% of the GDP to education. It is not clear as to how they plan to divert such a huge amount when the economy is on the brink of collapse and all non-development expenditures will definitely see a decline in future. Pakistan’s total public debt is somewhere around $100 billion and its annual exports are not more than $40 billion. So, in this situation, as to how the PPP will allocate $17 billion to education remains a serious question that must be asked. A sensible and practical promise of the PPP is the devolution of finance for higher education to provinces.
Provincial higher education commissions need strengthening and capacity-building in research and development, and the provinces can achieve this only if the next government implements the 18th constitutional amendment in letter and spirit. Finances must flow directly to these commissions instead of taking a longer route that runs through the HEC. The PML-N has not thought about these intricacies, but the PPP has at least mentioned this issue in its manifesto. The PPP has also promised another pie in the sky, and that is implementation of article 25A of the constitution – to provide free and compulsory education for all children. In this context, the PPP fail to explain how they will achieve this when during the last fifteen years the PPP government in Sindh has not been able to do this in the province they have ruled for so long. The promise to build a primary school within a 30-minute radius and a secondary/higher secondary school within a 60-minute radius of citizens raises the question of whether this time is calculated for a person on foot or for a vehicle! Children going to school on foot will find it difficult to walk that long, and if the distance will be covered within the given timeframe by car, this will require every student to have access to transport. At present, barely a few schools in Sindh offer transportation facilities to students. One also wonders as to what prevented the PPP governments in the past 15 years from providing affordable transport to school-going children. Ideally, a secondary school should not be more than 30 minutes away from children anywhere in Pakistan.
The education part of the manifestos of four major political parties, the PML-N, PPP, PTI and JI have promised to raise government expenditure on education to 4 or 5% of GDP – at a time when the current expenditure is well below 2% of GDP. As such, they are all planning roughly a 100% increase in the education budget. Internationally, 4% of GDP is recommended as the minimum expenditure on education.
All political parties have promised great things for education – that look very impressive on paper, but when examined, do not seem to have a grain of truth in them. For now, it seems that we lack a realistic approach to implement universal basic education, free of cost – as promised in the constitution of the country.