First it was a freeze on university spending and now it is the derailing of the entire higher education system in Pakistan. In a recent development, the Pakistani government has decided to devolve the "Higher Education Commission," which formulates policies and regulates universities in Pakistan. The move is part of a constitutional reform that will transfer educational controls to provinces.
The devolution, currently on hold by the supreme court, has faced a strong opposition from academics, students, and political parties. The biggest backlash has come from the academics where many have voiced concerns about the downfall in educational standards if the devolution is completed. Students have taken to the streets with support from some political parties.
Supporters of the move say the devolution will empower provinces to formulate their own education policies instead of towing the federal line. Which, if it is actually done, will be a step in the right direction. Provinces, however, do not have the infrastructure and transparency that is crucial to educational development. There are also concerns about foreign scholarships as the HEC is running a successful merit-based program where it has sent thousands of students abroad for PhDs. Scholarships will remain a federal subject under the new arrangement but will be prone to political manipulation and nepotism.
Leaving the higher education aside, which remains an elusive dream for most Pakistanis, a major storm is brewing in elementary education. While there is a brouhaha on higher education, there is hardly any discussion on elementary and high school education in Pakistan. Education statistics paint a grim picture where only 60% of children are able to finish primary school. Under the devolution plans, this rate may plummet further as provinces have been allowed to raise fees in public schools, which educate an overwhelming number of Pakistanis and charge nominal fees.
While provinces are contemplating fee hike, public schools in Islamabad, the federal capital, have already taken a stance. A 700% increase in fees has been implemented with the start of the new academic year. Parents of an elementary school student now have to cough up 300 Rupees, or $3.5, in monthly fees. Those in high schools have to pay 500 Rupees, or $5.9 a month. One does not need be an expert to think of the outcome: a massive dropout. With one-fourth of the population earning less than $2 a day, the fee hike is nothing short of a death sentence for education. The only alternative for them is to enroll their children in a madrassa, where there will at least be free food and lodging.
No one in Pakistan is talking about this great disaster in the making. And that is the real tragedy.