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Elitism and colonialism’s residue: Pakistan’s education system is in crisis

Haniya Basir uncovers the various inequalities of Pakistani's education system.

Pakistan’s education system has failed the nation’s youth as elitism and remnants of colonialism have intensified inequalities in the new generations. The widespread requirements of English proficiency have distorted the schooling system’s ability to a successfully educate its youth.

Pakistan was described as “among the world’s worst performing countries in education,” at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development. Whilst some steps have been taken since to improve young people’s prospects, the problem is innate, with the key issue being class divides. Despite having gained independence from Britain 73 years ago, the country’s convoluted relationship with its past continues to hinder progress for working class households. The nation’s affluent class is characterised by their preservation of British customs and the English language, resulting in it being adopted as an official language of Pakistan. This has brought about a society in which intellectualism is equated with English proficiency, whilst fluency in the language has become a prerequisite for many professional jobs.

According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey, conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in 2019, 37% of all children attending school are studying at private institutions, where teaching is in English. This number seems mismatched considering the country’s high levels of poverty. However, it is reflective of the growing elitism in Pakistan as well as the desire of working-class parents to equip their children with the language requirements necessary to obtain professional jobs. This has been one of the key causes of the country’s failure to successfully educate its youth as those attending government schools are immediately excluded from skilled job opportunities due to their lack of English fluency. On the other hand, students attending low grade private schools, where many teachers themselves do not have an adequate grasp of the English language, resort to rote learning as they face the challenge of not only learning the curriculum, but also grappling with understanding a foreign language.

The inequalities will continue to worsen with the newest education reform: the introduction of the Single National Curriculum (SNC). On the surface, this appears to be a suitable solution to the disparities in the Pakistani education system. However, the SNC is anything but singular. The elite private schools are exempt and are free to follow their own curriculum, thereby only fortifying existing inequalities, rather than raising standards across the board.

Those that are studying in government schools are faced with separate challenges, most notably a lack of teaching resources and poor infrastructure, as well as high rates of teacher absenteeism. According to UN guidance, Pakistan should spend at least 15 to 20% of the total national budget and 4 to 6% of GDP in education. Yet, in 2017, the government spent just 2.8% of GDP on education, illustrating the state’s abdication of responsibility for the nation’s youth.

The issue of effective education is particularly crucial considering Pakistan has one of the world’s youngest populations. According to the 2019 Human Development Report, the median age in Pakistan is 22.8 and is only expected to increase a mere 8 years by 2050. With 35.1% of the population between the ages of 0 and 14, education standards must be improved or else the youth bulge threatens to hamper economic growth for several decades to come. 

If the young masses can be successfully educated, they have the potential to revitalise Pakistan’s struggling economy and create a prosperous future. However, in the current climate, with elitism continuing to thrive and inequalities intensifying, this seems to be a Herculean task.

Image: Sam Phelps/CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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