The voter should strike while the iron is hot

Samar Quddus

 

With just over a week to go for general elections, the campaign is in full swing with candidates visiting their constituencies in a final push for votes. Every political party has also issued its manifesto, detailing its policies and programmes to be implemented once it comes into power.

Although the country has survived a democratic decade without direct military intervention and, hopefully, it is entering another peaceful transition, the social and economic setup of the country is still fragile because previous governments could not implement their development agenda effectively, particularly in the social sector.

One of the most pressing concerns for Pakistan is the provision of quality education at all levels. This is a fundamental right of every child and a pre-requisite for sustainable development of a country. Unfortunately, the issue did not receive as much focus as it warranted.

However, this pre-poll period is the ideal time for the individuals and communities to demand reforms in the education system and a clear strategy for the implementation of Article 25-A of the Constitution from each political party and candidate asking them for votes

Issues related to eradicating illiteracy and provision of quality education should be a major concern in the public conversation with the candidates ahead of these elections. This is mainly because the education system of Pakistan has long been abysmal and should be assigned a top priority in any national development paradigm ahead of any other issue.

According to a UNESCO report, Pakistan ranks 113th among 120 countries of the world with literacy rate as low as 58 percent. However, the problem is graver amongst women and in rural areas that reflects the inequalities prevalent in our education system and society at large.

While the primary enrolment rate is approximately 93 per cent, according to recent figures, only 35-40% students manage to complete their secondary level education. Most of the children drop out of school by the age of nine or ten. What is more alarming for the policy experts and political leadership is the increasing gap between girls’ and boys’ enrolment rate.

Half of the total population comprises women, yet there has been rising concern that literacy rates in women are quite low compared to men. Most of the girls from poor families do not attend the school at all or leave school before completing final grade. While others are compelled to study humanities instead of science subjects because they are mistakenly assumed to be better suited for that.

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The 21st century has witnessed a drastic change in the world of science and technology. It is important for the countries to keep pace with the constantly changing landscape of science. Technology and innovation is now considered as a new economy. The emphasis is on delivering quality education, particularly in maths and science subjects, because the rates of return to education gets higher with the increase in cognitive skills. This will further increase the likelihood of higher future income and, thus, foster economic growth.

Years of schooling as well as quality education is an impetus to sustainable socio-economic development. For a country like Pakistan where most of the children at primary level do not have enough grasp on arithmetic calculations, fundamental reform in the education system has become inevitable. According to a World Bank report, only two-fifths of the children from grade three in rural areas can solve basic math sums. Therefore, ensuring quality education with innovative ideas, particularly for science subjects, is as important as increasing enrolment rates.

The Pakistani youth bulge, that comprises 64 percent of total population, is being seen as playing a decisive role in the upcoming elections. Moreover, their potential can be harnessed by enhancing their cognitive skills, capacity development, and technical expertise. With the right allocation of budget and right policies, youth can turn out as a key driver for Pakistan’s future economic growth and prosperity.

Therefore, they should be provided with quality education to secure future livelihood and create decent employment opportunities. Otherwise, it would cause them to fall into a poverty trap turning this blessing into a population curse as an economic burden on the government. This is perhaps the best time for young generation to grapple the issue and put forth their demand for quality-oriented education reforms in the country.

At the outset, it is argued that the political unwillingness is the main hurdle to adopt quality reforms in the education. This is further impeded by the deficient administrative commitment to execute policy programmes efficiently. While there has been number of policies and programmes formulated, most of them fail to get approved or implemented. Students’ learning outcomes have long been neglected with a weak monitoring system that requires additional cost.

On the demand side, there has been insufficient societal pressure urging education reforms. But there is a growing consensus that high quality education and improving performance of education system yields self-sustained socio-economic outcomes that is second to none.

Political obstacles and lack of public awareness together continue to constrain and distort well-formulated policy initiatives. It is imperative to address the issue at all levels in order to grasp the possibility of adopting education reforms. In this regard, the role of many education reformists and NGOs is worth mentioning.

They have been enhancing the weaknesses in the demand of reforms through information campaigns to the rationally ignorant general public and quality oriented policy advocacy. Bolstering the supply of and demand for reform is the real challenge for the successful execution of the education reform policy.

It should be the top-priority of the next elected government to achieve necessary change. Active political engagement of the public, in both pre- and post- poll period, is vital to holding government representatives accountable and responsible for the policies that only serve the interests of a few veto groups and continue to push the country into further economic and social abyss.

The writer has a keen interest in social issues and policy reform.

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