Miseducating Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated.

It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education.

I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth — for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate and GDP per capita in US dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity. Consider the pair Uzbekistan (100; $6,856) and Mongolia (98; $13,000): the latter is almost twice as wealthy at about the same level of education. Now consider Pakistan (58; $5,527) and Bangladesh (73; $3,869): the former is actually wealthier at a lower level of education. Consider Myanmar (76; $6,139) which is one-and-a-half times wealthier than Bangladesh at almost the same level of education and comparable in wealth to Pakistan despite having a considerably higher level of education. For historical evidence consider the fact that in 1700 India had 25 percent of the world’s wealth with virtually no literacy. How did that happen if wealth is the outcome of education? This share dropped to 6 percent by 2015 despite increasing education for a host of unrelated reasons that cannot be ignored in drawing conclusions about the relationship between education and wealth. It is equally important to be aware that both in 1700 and 2015 wealth in India was not widely distributed but was concentrated in very few hands.

The bottom line is that there is no simple correlation between education and wealth and it is deceptive to derive such a conclusion by looking at education levels in developed countries like Japan while ignoring the many other factors that might have been more critical like, for example, the Meiji reforms of 1868. Nor is there a simple relationship between wealth and its distribution. Leaving aside the accidents of history, many, more crucial, factors can determine a country’s development path of which the policy framework is paramount. While it is true that China invested in education, its growth dynamic was triggered by the policy changes in 1979 while earlier, despite the education, it had suffered unimaginable catastrophes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

This last point highlights the damning inference that it is disingenuous to blame the lack of mass education for lack of development which is primarily due to misgovernance — keep in mind that all policy decisions are taken not by illiterate citizens but by the well-educated rulers. Just like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, the policies in Pakistan to promote fundamentalism and hostility towards neighbours are solely attributable to its well-educated ruling classes. While Chinese leaders learnt from their mistakes, Pakistan’s rulers remain enmeshed in their mindless jingoism and container thought. It is naive to hope that mere education can get them out of this mess of their own creation.

The greater irony is that the kind of education being promoted by Pakistan’s elite is exacerbating and not alleviating the problems of misdevelopment. Fundamentalism and intolerance are the more obvious outcomes of an education designed not to encourage creativity but to buttress a chimerical national identity rooted in fear and arrogance. One must remain cognizant of the difference between the quantity of education and its quality.

Deep down I believe Mr. Ismail is aware that there is no straight road from education to richness because the party to which he belongs did little for education during its tenure. Go over the list of heads of educational institutions appointed during that period and it would be obvious that improving education was not the motivation. Little was done to regulate private colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills turning out graduates without any prospects of employment. And higher education remained plagued by the virus of plagiarism in which the Executive Director appointed by the government to the watchdog institution, the Higher Education Commission, was himself complicit.

Mr. Ismail has made other debatable claims in his article. For example, he has asserted that “for some reason education is not very valued by our modern culture.” This is not consonant with the back-breaking sacrifices made by poor parents to put their children through school and simultaneously pay for supplemental tuition to compensate for the low quality of the latter. This, despite the fact that returns to education are very low in Pakistan where connections matter more than knowledge or merit.

Mr. Ismail also claimed, citing Aristotle, that “if parents do their jobs and raise their children well, in one generation all of society’s problems will go away. Every citizen would be educated, decent, kind and well mannered.” How one wishes this were true. What proportion of the set of educated people in positions of authority today are decent, kind and well-mannered? The educated who routinely slap low-paid public servants, mistreat maids, and use foul language in public discourse offer sufficient contrary evidence to challenge this claim.

Good and meaningful education is a basic human right which ought to be pursued for its own sake and not for any instrumental reasons. It is essential for individuals to live fulfilling lives to which they are entitled by virtue of being born. It is a grave failure of the state to have deprived the majority of good education for so many decades. It is adding insult to injury to attempt to pass the buck for this neglect and criminal misgovernance of the ruling class onto powerless people, an allegedly apathetic culture, and parental negligence. The first step towards a better future requires the state to own its responsibility for the welter of serious problems enmeshing the country of which lack of education is only one. The problem is not that people do not value education; it is the abuse of education for patronage, profits, and political ends. This abuse needs to end before the journey to development can begin.

An edited version of this opinion appeared in The News on December 9, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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One Response to “Miseducating Pakistan”

  1. Shahid Mehmood Says:

    I have not come across such a beautiful refutation of an illogically held idea ever, in Pakistan, where it is customary to pay lip service to ‘education’, and keep calling for raising the expenditures on it without understanding the essence or rationale of this very concept. Miftah Ismail is but one example of the orthodoxy that seems to have swooped over the psyche of even the ‘educated’ people in Pakistan (Miftah has a PhD in Public Policy), whereby economic growth and rise in per capita income can only come by through achieving a higher rate of education (in terms of literacy rates).

    However, in Pakistan, if you try to clarify this issue and explain otherwise, you could be labelled anti-education or somebody who does not want people to be educated and thus kept as ‘Jahils’. Put another way, you can be accused of being anti- progress and anti-growth. I found this out, to my detriment, many years ago while working as a consultant in the Finance Division. At a hurriedly arranged conference under the banner of ‘Friends of Pakistan’ (these conferences usually held to beg more money, albeit in a respected manner under government’s tutelage), big-time baboo’s paid paeans to the need for more expenditures on education plus bemoaning the lack of fiscal space for added expenditures (summary- give us more money since we don’t have any), I was unexpectedly asked to share what I thought about the issue. The term ‘unexpectedly’ is being used since consultants are only kept for showing the outside world that baboo’s are serious about reforms, and for extracting more ‘project’ money. But they are not allowed to speak and usually act as personal assistants for taking notes, especially if their English happens to be good. Anyway, I argued along the lines of the necessity to complement education with quality, inculcating such attributes like innovativeness and entrepreneurship. I was later called by my JS to apprise me of the unhappiness of our Additional Secretary and Secretary, and whether I was trying to argue for lesser education!

    The truth of the matter is that people in Pakistan have a severe misunderstanding of this issue. Education has become more of a political issue (Miftah’s article being a clear example) and for running a whole industry based on incoming financial assistance (there are, though, exceptions). Anjum sahab’s article gives enough examples to demystify the issue. Clearly, the link between more education and more economic growth is not that straightforward. What better example of this than the former Soviet Union. When it came to their country’s comparison to their cold war rival, the USA, the Soviet leadership used to boast about the number of highly qualified people (doctors, engineers, etc.) that their system was producing. At the time of Soviet dismemberment (26th December 1991), 95 percent of the USSR was educated, with quiet a substantial amount of highly qualified people.

    But, despite having a highly educated population, USSR could not survive. In the end, all this education came to naught as there was no system to make use of their education and capabilities. In fact, in cases like nuclear scientists and engineers, their skills and education conferred a negative externality as many of them went on to sell their skills (and thus dangerous secrets) to nations that had high demand for it (North Korea, as an example). The global community, realizing the danger, rushed to execute preventive measures but the damage was done. In this particular case, thus, the educated Soviets in the end bore a negative externality for the global community. And nobody could blame the poor souls who did sell their services. They had taken for granted, as the world does, that the best way to guaranteed income and good life is a college or university degree. But when all this investment (time wise or financial) proves to be incapable of sustaining a life, then education could be counterproductive.

    The main confusion, from my point of view, lies in the failure to differentiate between ‘formal’ education and otherwise. What we have, globally, is a system that revolves around step-wise formal education, whereby one gets a certification in the form of a degree, which is basically a signal that a person holding that particular degree has some skill set. For me, what is important in this regard is that the system is designed in a way that it produces innovative people, entrepreneurs who are willing to think critically and creatively. These are the people that take risks, invest in new ideas and come up with a product which gives rise to complementing services, and thus create job opportunities. Bill Gates’ Microsoft and Jobs’ Apple are relevant examples (Bill Gates was a college dropout).

    But when an education system is tailored to churning out degrees, and inculcating a thinking which highly prices public sector jobs over entrepreneurship and creativity, then what you get is a system that is prevalent in Pakistan, and was once prevalent in USSR. I observed this stark difference in thinking personally when I went to the US. In Pakistan, the whole emphasis during our many years of schooling was on how to pass the ISSB or CSS (I don’t know of many college level youngsters who haven’t appeared for ISSB exams). In contrast, the emphasis of students in the US was to start something of their own. The last thing on their mind was a public sector job. In systems like that of US, the entrepreneurs and their endeavors (backed up, of course, by supportive institutions) mange to generate economic growth plus provide jobs (there are, of course, failures like the Great Depression. But these are exceptions rather than the norm).
    Then there is the type of education which is tailored towards producing responsible citizens and good human beings, who could prove to be a positive externality for the community and the country. I find this aspect largely absent, though, from majority of education systems all around globe. It certainly has no buyers in Pakistan!
    I don’t want to bore the reader by extending this discussion further, lest they lose interest. But I hope that the above stated ably complements Anjum sahab’s beautiful article. To sum up, Pakistan’s policymakers need to get over their dangerous infatuation with formal education, and develop a clear understanding of the link between economic growth and education. It’s no good to resort to clichés like without educated people, industrial revolution would not have taken off (in the earlier stages of industrial revolution, percentage of educated people in England stood hardly at 20 percent). Sri Lanka’s education rate stood at 95 percent while it went through a terrible, atrocious civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese. What is needed is a system that produces critically thinking minds, more entrepreneurs and a system that supports it. Otherwise, what happens is that seekers of formal education develop a false sense of entitlement that in the end proves harmful.

    I’ll end by relating an incident from about a decade ago, to illustrate this point about false sense of entitlement. A person in Chitral lost his three sons in Afghanistan, killed by the Taliban. They had gone to Afghanistan to enlist in its police after refusing to help their father in tilling his land and making a livelihood from it. The aggrieved father told everybody that his biggest mistake in life was to send his sons to school. Once they got their matriculation degrees, they stopped helping their father in chores related to land tilling. Instead, they believed that they now deserved to be ‘officers’ and it’s below their qualification to work on such menial tasks. This pursuit of entitlement took them to Afghanistan, and to their deaths.

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