The shifting political and economic landscape of schools

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The shifting political and economic landscape of schools

With the help of the Leman Foundation in Brazil and Oxford University’s technical staff, I had the great fortune to participate in the South-South Fellowship last December. As opposed to the usual results we get when donor programmes invest directly in efforts to change the status quo in education, the South-South Fellowship brings together the education communities of Kenya, Brazil, and Pakistan to help generate collaborations and lesson-learning across contexts with greater similarity to each other.

Almost a decade ago, in February 2013, some coworkers and I started working on one such effort—a campaign to establish the place of education in the public discourse. Alif Ailaan was the name of the campaign. In the course of five years and two national elections, Alif Ailaan helped bring education to the forefront of Pakistani politics. The campaign concluded in August of 2018. Alif Ailaan, which was funded by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), accomplished its goals but has been met with widespread scepticism for raising more questions than it answers.

The current educational system in Pakistan doesn’t give much room for discussion. Across the board, from provincial governments’ basic literacy initiatives to Islamabad’s university regulator (the Higher Education Commission), the education discourse is more muddled, confusing, and ineffectual now than it was when the Alif Ailaan campaign was winding down. Extreme proponents of this strategy for campaigns state that this is proof that it was a tactical error to end Alif Ailaan. However, there are other, well-informed critics who raise serious questions about the efficacy of donor-funded interventions in changing the fundamental politics that shape education in Pakistan. The truth, like so much else in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

Through the South-South Fellowship

Through the South-South Fellowship

A group of government, for-profit, and non-profit education sector leaders are working to forge convergences for collaborations that do not rely on multilateral or bilateral financing from outside sources. A handful of heroic bureaucrats in the group, led by Baela Raza Jamil of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi, are responsible for making this happen. Thousands of community activists, researchers, and educators have tried and failed to effect change in their neighbourhoods; can a small group of change agents succeed where they have failed?

The depressingly simple solution seems obvious, but it isn’t. The current educational system in Pakistan, including madrassahs, expensive private schools, cheap private schools, public schools, educational programming on television and radio, and a wide range of universities and colleges, has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail. This isn’t exactly ground zero. Inadequate funding for education isn’t helping, and neither is the belief that Pakistan can somehow accomplish what no other country has. What Pakistani families get from government schools is a perfect example of what may be the most widely known and accepted truth about education: that the public sector cultivates permanent jobs for teachers, but invests almost nothing in their capabilities and even less in holding them accountable for learning outcomes.

The returns on education are already the subject of much hand-wringing by austerity hawks who would happily starve the system of even these limited investments, despite the fact that Pakistanis now spend private money on education at a rate of as much as 1.4% of GDP annually, with at least another 2.0% of GDP being spent by the government.

Campaigns that aim to mobilise social and political capital in support of simple grand propositions, such as universal enrolment or generic improvements to the quality of education, have a sound foundation. But carrying it out properly can be tricky. Lack of access to high-quality, affordable education for all citizens is primarily a political issue. Technical competence, financial means, and adequate public administration systems are all factors, but these are merely second-order issues. No amount of money, no quantity of teacher training, and no investment in technology will do the trick if Pakistan’s political leaders don’t emphasise the net present value and altered future trajectory of a country with dramatically improved learning outcomes for its young people.

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While Alif Ailaan was successful in galvanising preexisting political incentives and bringing them together under a single framework, educational consensus quickly faded in the months following the campaign’s conclusion. What occurred? Even on issues of common ground, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and its opponents were unable to sit down and talk because of their toxic political differences. The ruling party from 2018–2022 insisted on adding unnecessary populist noise to the reforms, which tarnished an otherwise reasonable set of curriculum changes. The outcome was predictable: a short-term victory for politicians and bureaucrats aligned with the current leadership, but a much more divided and splintered education reform community.

What little political capital the coalition government had over the past few months has been wiped out by the inflationary ignominy of the past few months. In today’s political and cultural climate, education is rarely discussed as a secondary or even tertiary consideration. Donor-funded initiatives like Alif Ailaan may have kept the issues alive on the surface, but it would take more than that — and multiple such initiatives — to enact 21st-century reform in a 19th-century system.

Since 2023 is an election year, experts in the field of education reform will have to look back on the progress made by countries like Brazil on the road to widespread literacy. Education reform requires a theory of change that is grounded in the specific context in which it is being implemented. Educators in Brazil know more about Ghalib and Iqbal than their Pakistani counterparts do. Financial institutions and donors, including multilaterals like the International Finance Corporation, private equity funds, and sovereign wealth funds, can provide assistance. By the time Pakistan turns 100 years old, it will have a population of over 350 million. Pakistan is an enormous market with a lot of unmet demand for education and training. In the absence of any obstacles, money will move to the most promising prospects.

The very tools available to teachers are evolving. Covid-19 caused a revolutionary shift away from the traditional classroom setting. Even in countries with developed learning ecosystems, such as Finland and Singapore, the learning losses from Covid-19 have been sizeable. Because education is not a political issue in Pakistan, the damage to educational outcomes there is immeasurable. The previous administration effectively froze the collection of education data. Unlike the national grid, which can be fixed and restarted in less than a day, education cannot be fixed overnight. This canvas spans multiple decades. Local governments, philosophers, and the religious communities that shape countries with better outcomes than Pakistan have all contributed to this canvas. There is no way that such a coalition could ever be formed in modern Pakistan. To be fair, they really should. If you want to see major changes, there’s no better time than an election year to do so. Here’s to the upcoming election!

Daniel Harrison

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