Pakistan’s Educational System: Dysfunction & Extremism

According to the World Bank, nearly half of the adult population of Pakistan can’t read, and primary enrollment remains the lowest in South Asia.

Extremist groups are recruiting impoverished Pakistani children by offering free education, thereby indoctrinating the next generation, by exploiting the lack of educational opportunity. While some efforts by the Pakistani government have been put forth, there are still many challenges ahead.

One problem: the government-mandated curriculum. All registered public & private schools are required to teach Islamiyat [Islamic studies], using material that directly contradicts the goals and values of a progressive, moderate, and democratic Pakistan. The curriculum includes text books that contain hate material and encourage prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination towards women, religious minorities, and other nations. In 2004, Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor and chairman of Islamabad-based Quaid-i-Azam University wrote in Foreign Affairs: “Pakistani schools – and not just madrassas [Islamic religious schools] – are churning out fiery zealots, fueled with a passion for jihad and martyrdom.

Few people educated in public schools are able to move up the ladder of social mobility, and the government, in its new national policy, concedes that access at all levels to educational opportunities remain low.

The 2009 National Education Policy says Pakistan’s weak education results from poor implementation of policies, and a lack of commitment to education. Currently, the government spends a mere 2.7 percent of it’s gross domestic product on education. There are nine colleges which teach intermediate and degree level classes, but they only accept males, as noted by a 2008 research study by a Peshawar-based independent nonprofit organization.

The 9/11 Commission report, released in 2004, said some of Pakistan’s religious schools served as “incubators for violent extremism. The rise of the Taliban in the 1990’s, brought reports thatmany of the group’s leaders were educated in the madrassas, which has only fueled concern regarding these religious schools. Adding to the concern, are reports of Pakistan’s tribal area providing suicide attackers in Afghanistan. A 2007 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that suicide attackers in Afghanistan “draw heavily from madrassas across the border in Pakistan. The report also noted that recruits were drawn from Afghan refugees settled in Pakistan.

There has been some measures by recent Pakistani governments to reform theses religious schools, but they have been met with little success. The first educational reform was issued in 2001, the second in 2002, yet only 500 maddresses have reported accepting the curriculum reform.

Since 2002, the United States Agency for International Development has invested over $682 Million to reform Pakistan’s education system. In September 2009, the U.S. Congress approved a new bill authorizing $1.5 billion a year in nonmilitary aid for the next five years starting in 2010.

However, concerns remain in how best to disburse the aid money for maximum impact. Some experts say a large portion of development assistance is spent on international consultants and overhead costs. Lack of coordination between the central government and the local authorities who are in charge of implementing educational reforms add to the problem.

An increasing number of experts point to the growth of low-cost private schools that are generally more efficient than public schools and recommend boosting the private sector to help reform the system. Public-private partnership models are also recommended. Understanding parental choice is also critical for any meaningful educational reform. Many parents opt out of the educational market rather than send their children to madrassas for full-time instruction.

Factors such as physical distance to schools and presence of female teachers are usually considered an important determinant for girls’ education. In other cases, stipends can help to encourage parents to send their children to school when incentives other than quality of education are a determinant in enrollment. The World Bank started a program in 2003 of paying a stipend to families to ensure they send their daughters to school.

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