Education in Pakistan: Some Reflections

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Dr. Manzoor Ahmad[1]


(The education system in Pakistan is in shambles. Centralization, commercialization and bureaucratic interference etc., have stultified the development of proper education. Seats of learning, particularly universities, must be given complete autonomy so that merit-based decisions that promote learning are promoted and implemented. Furthermore, “the relationship between our religio-social culture and education” needs to articulated, refined and developed for the benefit of the community.  Editor).

1. The Problem:

Education has suffered grievously in Pakistan over the years. This might be due to the problematic relationship between our religio-social culture and education. Education determines the political norms and a given political setup makes educational policies. It becomes an egg and hen situation where it is difficult to determine how a start can be made. The situation worsens because Muslims as a whole suffer from the delusion that they are the possessors of knowledge and that their knowledge is self-sufficient. They also suffer from the phobia that an exposure to new ideas would threaten their identity and would weaken their belief system. If we look back at our history which has been very proudly presented as one of the best, we would be amazed to find that Muslim intellectuals (ulema) have constantly refused to study ideas which had emerged in the wake of modernism, but were eager to claim that whatever the modernists were saying has already been said before by the Muslims. Most Muslim writings during the last 600 years have been either polemical or apologetic. This attitude has been in contrast to the attitude of the 2nd and 3rd century Muslim scholars who eagerly welcomed Greek sciences and Greek logic during the early days of Islam.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Muslims have mostly been  under colonial rule but they failed to make  use of the situation since imperialism, with all its evils, did bring new ideas along with it and opened new windows which could have been imbibed by  the Muslims. The efforts of Syed Ahmed Khan were opposed vigorously and people were discouraged from acquiring education at the institutions established in Aligarh. It created a huge intellectual deficit for the Muslim community living in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. It not only adversely affected the intellectual content of Muslim struggle for independence but later transferred to Pakistan with ominous effect.. During the days of the independence movement, the critical mass of intellect as well as the intellectual capacity of our leaders was mediocre, though we had sincere and educated leaders like Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Hasrat Mohani, Allama Mashriqi, Maulana Maududi etc. None of them were able to visualize the world that would emerge within the next 50 to 100 years or so. It was basically their intellectual incapacity that prevented a thorough analysis of the socio-political reality of the subcontinent at that time. They were mostly reacting to momentary contingencies without a well thought out plan for the future. Some of the intellectuals glorified the past and some of them tried to accommodate modern ideas within the Islamic perspectives without really providing a logical base for such a venture. Iqbal, specially during his “Reconstruction” period, thought about the problem seriously and provided a really sound basis for developing a modern social system on the basis of religious experience but unfortunately when he started talking about Ijtehad he also became the victim of the very strong logic that the traditional Islamic jurisprudence provided.

With this backdrop, education had to suffer from an intractable malaise because power brokers of different hues and colours wanted to use it to achieve their own ends. Admitted that in every society there has always been a certain amount of politics in determining the aims of education and its structure, specially since the establishment of nation states and then during the days of ideology but in Pakistan at no point were matters resolved one way or the other. The issues of language, of ideology, of sub- nationalities, and of religion always played a discordant role in the decision making. The three major education policies inflicted on Pakistan i.e., of Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul Haq have been, successively, pulling apart the fabric of society in the country. Now fresh thinking has started which has also become a direct concern of international influencers on public policy in Pakistan[2].

The problem was neither sudden nor unexpected. What is now termed as the “Ideology of Pakistan” had inherent contradictions and, prior to the creation of Pakistan, no serious attempt was made to clarify the concept.[3] This resulted in a lack of a clear-cut and harmonious socio-political culture in Pakistan aggravated by the tremendous intellectual deficit that the country inherited. The document prepared after the first Education Conference in December 1947 was imprecise and contained  vague formulations  about Pakistani identity, a suitable system of education and an ambition to become modern and scientific.

In the evolution of an appropriate education system two main problems got entangled in the politics of education, one was the medium of instruction and the other Pakistan Ideology. Conflicting opinions on both issues delayed the formation of a positive plan of action till 1959 when Ayub Khan constituted a Commission on National Education which produced a systematic report dealing with all the major policy issues including incorporation of the role of religion (ideology) in the system of education and the medium of instruction. The major defect of the policy was excessive centralization and concentration of power, limited academic freedom and bureaucratization of the educational structure. But with the wind of political change Bhutto abandoned the policy, nationalized most of the educational institutions and gave more say to the stake- holders in running the affairs of the university, resulting in a sort of trade unionism. The story was repeated again with Bhutto’s overthrow and this time education was Islamized and restraints put on academic freedom. All these policies, due to an absence of a strong intellectual base, were filtered through the perceptions of the bureaucrats and reflect not only their expertise and competence but also their interests and limitations as a class. Now a new education policy is in the making, and I do not expect it to be substantively different from its predecessors, though it may change in some of its nuances and try to strike a balance between Islam and modernity. Nevertheless its substantive centrality and bureaucratic approach is hardly expected to change. Pakistani intellect is not yet ready to allow academic freedom which alone can generate ideas and give an effective direction to public policy. [It is ironic  that in the 21st century America seems to be sliding back into the coercive ideological mould where teachers are urged to teach ‘intelligent design’ theory of creation and where a university professor would not be allowed to speak his mind freely on the Holocaust or 9/11 event. I do hope that this phase of McCarthyism would soon be over and academia would not be restrained from the incessant pursuit of the truth, whatever the truth may be].

This problem of education in Pakistan is the outcome of a malaise that is more fundamental in nature, and relates to the paradigm under which the Muslim mind works. I shall revert to it later.

2. Commercialization:

A part of my education was in Karachi at a time when almost all colleges were run by philanthropic associations aided by the Government. Despite the sudden post-partition upheavals, these institutions, some how or other, managed to maintain the quality of education. But with time, education in Pakistan suffered increasingly from inefficiency, neglect and lack of proper orientation. The inability of the Government to provide appropriate opportunities for the growing population of the country and a disinterest in faculty development created a vacuum in the educational field. The vacuum started getting filled by private efforts which was a mix of philanthropic and commercial motivations. Commercialization of education created dissatisfaction amongst the faculty who were being exploited by private managements. The nationalization of education indeed helped in safeguarding the interest of the teachers but proved counter-productive to the cause of education. Once given the security of jobs, the teachers started taking things for granted caused great harm to education.

Recently private enterprise has started taking interest in education, which again, is a mix of altruism and utter commercialism. Education, especially higher education requires more per-capita investment than primary and secondary education and can never become good business except at the cost of education itself. Countries which have established private universities and institutions are supported by endowments, donations and other independent sources of income and not more than 35% of the cost is recovered from the revenue generated by the fees levied on students. Pakistani institutions of higher learning which are saving money for their investors are cutting corners and are doling out worthless degrees. I also feel perturbed by the idea of mono- discipline universities and teaching institutes. A university by its very nature is an institution which does more than merely produce manpower for certain skilled jobs. It is a place where a student does not live in the cocoon of a particular discipline but interacts with a bigger universe and becomes part of an inter-related whole. A university, by definition, should try to create a whole man rather than a mere skilled worker. For a teaching institute it should be necessary to provide broad-based knowledge. The idea of mono-discipline institutes of higher learning is a product of the   20th century when it was felt that universities were not producing the right type of skilled human resource required by society. The MIT was established in America to address this situation. But if you look at the American education system and the disciplines taught at the Institute you would find that the system itself provides a broad base of knowledge to students and makes sure that the human resource it produces is not only a cog in a big machine but a useful member of the society with firm values and ideals. If a person, when  he enters the portals of higher education institutions, does not get a chance to widen his horizons of knowledge he would remain an incomplete being, unable to see the complexity of the larger world which he would encounter after getting a piece of paper called the degree. Unfortunately, in Pakistan specialization starts immediately after primary education and by the time a student reaches class seven he has to decide which way he has to go. By the time he completes his twelve years of education his learning becomes too narrow and one-sided. The pedagogical methodology commonly followed in Pakistani educational institutions treats learning not as a process of self-discovery, but of regimentation which aggravates the situation.

I am afraid that Pakistani planners and educationists are loosing sight of an important factor of higher education. They, along-with political leaders, do not tire repeating ad-nauseam that Pakistan needs science and technology. Nobody can deny the need, but, what is lost sight of is that science and technology cannot deliver the goods by themselves unless there is a strong idea structure behind them and unless they fit and mesh with the social and conceptual development of the society. I am reminded of an incident when a Minister of Education, who himself was  ‘educated’ and a thorough gentleman, insisted on naming a private university as Medical University rather than the University of Health Sciences as I suggested to him. He became apprehensive that behind the demand of the new nomenclature there might be sinister motives. Again it is only in Pakistan where you would find a university named as “Government College University,” an absurdity which has been accepted both by the Government in its eagerness to increase the number of universities  and by the educational elite because a ‘university professor’ sounds better than a ‘college professor.’ As far back as 1241AD John of Garland was lamenting commercialization of education. True scholars, he laments are poor and are considered as witless whereas every clever person is after medicine or law where he invests money in education and earns profits immediately after. Cardinal Newman, while establishing the Catholic University in Ireland was also critical of the loss of a unifying, wholesome and philosophical outlook of life and complains of the fragmentation of knowledge in the universities.

Reverting back to the present commercialism in education, which is termed by the government as public-private partnership and through which the government has found the moral justification for its negligence and shifted the responsibility to investors. It is a retrograde action as compared to the early days in Pakistan where philanthropists were encouraged to share the burden with the government which in its turn provided financial support in the form of yearly grants to the institutions. In the countries where private enterprise takes part in higher education activities the government’s assistance comes in the form of tax exemptions on endowments, donations and grants in aid, as well as infrastructure support in the form of concessional power / water and other rates, building road and transport links, or increasing public transport facilities to commuters. The government should evolve a set of rules on these lines, and then private investors as well as philanthropic associations should be encouraged to invest money in education. Unfortunately the bureaucratic mindset can only think in terms of wielding power and controlling the Governing Bodies of the universities through its nominees. Although  the new prototype charter contains a number of good suggestions, the actual governance of private universities has been vested in the statutory authority of the chancellors, who normally are the owners or investors and in most cases do not even know as to what a university means. Even the older charters left enough room to the owners to override the decisions of those more knowledgeable than themselves i.e., the vice chancellors, faculty, deans etc. The owners now lustily enjoy the authority and power they wield over deans, faculty and scholars working in the universities. The Government or the Higher Education Commission have not yet devised any regimen of autonomous auditing of academic finances and making it public to keep a vigil on the behaviour of the owners except giving irrational powers either to itself or to the patrons. Educational institutions can prosper only in an atmosphere of academic freedom and can be regulated by controls created, guarded and monitored again by academicians. The government or a private investor is the most inappropriate authority to guide, monitor and advise the institutions on corrective measures.

Education has become a branch of political economy which is necessary for industrial and industrializing nations but it is different from its commercialization. The latter is gnawing at the roots of higher education in a number of ways. The first and foremost is the utter inability of valuing any thing except in terms of monetary profits. Educators pick up a commodity which is saleable and try to maximize the quantity without caring for the quality. Most of the private institutions of higher learning are least concerned about the standards of education even in fields like medicine and surgery. Peripatetic Faculty is in vogue and a teacher now earns more in teaching in a number of institutions and getting paid on an hourly basis. Commercialism has afflicted even the public universities in the form of evening programmes where students pay more because they deserve less. One of the important functions of institutions of higher learning is to expand the horizons of knowledge. If a professor teaches two courses in the morning, two in the evening, examines and marks the transcripts, works as an invigilator at annual examinations and performs routine administrative duties of the university, how can one expect that he would have time and energy left to devote himself to research. Universities are not like secondary schools where the function of the teacher ends with delivering the same capsule of knowledge year after year. Once a visiting professor from America at the University of Karachi termed it as a half- day university where both the faculty and students leave the premises immediately after noon. The idea to use the afternoons as a second shift, like that of a factory, to produce more graduates at a higher cost may double the number of ill-educated graduates. Universities, where tax payers’ money is spent should never be allowed to dilute the educational standards nor to sell education in any form.

3. Import and Export:

Another development in the commercialization of education is its import and export which is termed a win-win situation both for the buyer and the seller. Facing financial constraints because of rising costs of higher education and especially after 9/11 when the inflow of foreign students, a dependable source of extra revenues, could not be guaranteed, the universities in advanced countries have started exporting education to developing countries. The third biggest source of income of England in the future would be through the export of education. Since 2000, the number of branch campuses world- wide has roughly doubled. Foreign satellite campuses have become a small but growing segment of the $30 billion international education industry. In Dubai, with the backing of the government a cluster of overseas colleges from India’s Mahatama Gandhi University to the St. Petersburg State University of Engineering and Economics have set up outposts in the knowledge village. Qatar is paying not only for the state of the art buildings, but also for staff bonuses. By 2012 Singapore hopes to enrole 150,000 outside students working as a supplier of imported ‘goods’. The West considers education trade a good way to represent itself to the Arab countries rather than trading in guns and oil. Pakistan is establishing six engineering universities in the coming years through importing human resource from advanced countries. Many Western institutions now offer their degrees through franchise arrangements with local partners.

All this seems to be a game in which all players can win. Students save the money required to go abroad and pay for the living cost as well as cost of education and also suffer cultural alienation; and the Western countries can keep the potential terrorist at bay. How this new form of commercialization is going to effect socially and culturally is an issue which should be carefully considered by importing countries and particularly Pakistan. The benefiting class of society by such a programme can enhance the divide between the haves and have-nots and can further weaken the role that a university ought to play in the creation of ideas and the advancement of culture. Along with the question of cost the question of quality is also important. Manufacture of goods do compromise on the standards for the consumers who can pay less for the commodity. If this starts happening with education also, which is likely, then, the loss of the poor importer would become perpetual. A country like Pakistan cannot solely live on imported goods howsoever cheap they may be. Such commercialized institutions are no replacement for the genuine indigenous educational institutions that we must develop ourselves.

4. Modernization and Madrassahs:

There is another issue which is currently attracting attention: modernization of the madarssah education. This is in general a delayed reaction to Islamization of knowledge, an idea floated by the modern educated Islamists and eagerly welcomed by the classicists since it bestows upon them an authority and a new opportunity which increases their influence in educational institutions and the society at large. The agenda of Islamization of education started by making Islamic learning a compulsory subject for graduate students through Statutory Regulations and for which the  University Acts were amended. Disciplines like Islamic Economics, Islamic Theory of State, Islamic Constitution, Islamic Law came in vogue and attempts were made to redesign the whole gamut of knowledge on the basis of Islamic principles. Such attempts could not succeed because the paradigms of religion and sciences have no common basis. What stayed on were only individual subjects sporadically taught at university level which have created no impact on the body of knowledge or on the personalities of students. Where political expediencies necessitated, the demands of the religionists were accommodated, like Islamic provisions in the Constitution, or the so called Islamic Banking. There seems to be a failure to appreciate on the part of Islamists that scientific and empirical knowledge cannot be coerced into a priori moulds. The scientific theories are liable to change, improvement and rejection whereas religious principles are immune to any change; religion may help in providing and protecting moral and social values, but even these values, when actually applied to existential situations, demand changes in older laws and patterns of society.

The demand of Islamization of knowledge got mutated into an activism for Islamizing society which seemed easier to its proponents, because it meant only applying the civil and criminal laws expounded by the Muslim jurists in the past. Due to local political expediencies and the international agenda for manipulating earth resources, the move of Islamizing society combined with an aversion to the West constituted a threat to both the internal and external aspects of security.

In Pakistan a by-product of the Afghan war was a proliferation of madrassahs which supplied human raw material for political activism of a certain type which was often violent. Hence the demand of modernization of knowledge in madrassahs through introducing IT disciplines, English Language and Sciences. The assumption of the modernists policy planners is the same as that of the Islamist, i.e., that you can change the mindset of students by teaching a few subjects in a class room. The present reformers of madrassah education fail to realize that similar institutions have been working in the Muslim world since ages, and have developed a de facto separation between religion and the state. Occasional political involvement of Muslim clergy in political activism against the state was not due to the involvement of the madrassah as an institution but was due to political movements supported by power groups. The relationship of the madrassah as an institution and the present political activism is almost the same as that of universities and political parties e.g. Muslim League and Aligarh University during the period of struggle for independence in the South Asian subcontinent. Political activism does not necessarily originate from the madrassahs, but is influenced and exploited by power brokers from outside. Incidentally, with the type of education they get in madrassahs, which is due to the absence of any employment opportunities, they become an easy fodder for power hungry politicians.

A reform proposed on the lines suggested by the government will not work as the origin of the idea lies somewhere else. This is hardly the occasion to discuss the problem in detail. It may suffice to point out that during the very early days of the Muslim rule, a de facto separation between the state and religion took place. Religion had no occasion to interfere in state polices or selection of political rulers and authorities. Since there was no qualitative change in the social patterns the early criminal and civil laws remained intact with minor changes, and the function of the religionist as a part of civil society was to protect those laws and to advise the rulers to behave justly. Madrassahs, became vehicles of learning the laws and training manpower for civil services. They were never a threat to the political authority of the day and hardly ever confronted the state as an institution. Nevertheless, they created a mindset which remains static to the present day.

What changed the scenario is politicalization of religion in the 20th century mainly in reaction to colonisation of Muslim lands by the Western powers. Religion played an effective motivating force for political parties seeking political independence of their homeland. A time when slogans like ‘Islam is not a religion but a way of life’ were raised and ideas like Islamic political, economic and social systems were floated. The political role of religion has been due to this new understanding of religion as an ideology, and it was not generated in madrassahs but in modern educational institutions or outside madrassahs.

In undivided India,  Maududi played a pivotal role in popularizing this idea, and eventually established a politico-religious party to strive for the ideology of Islam. This modern interpretation of religion ran counter to the ideas of madrassah educated moulvis who were happy with the conservative classical interpretation of Islam with a de-facto separation of state and religion. It is only recently and mostly due to the Afghan war that the two joined hands together. Politicised Islam started playing its part much earlier when the twenty-two point agreement on the basic features of an Islamic Constitution was signed by the ulema of all shades, mainly at the instance of Jamaat-e- Islami and Zafar Ahmad Ansari, an old Muslim Leaguer. The madrassah, at a conceptual level, still played a very marginal role and that also not as an institution.  Now a particular mindset has taken root and madrassahs have become vehicles of political activism of a certain type. Can one change this scenario only by introducing a couple of new disciplines to the curriculum without any change in the political paradigm of understanding religion. This is a problem which has got to be tackled, at a much higher intellectual level for which unfortunately a critical mass of intellectual resource is not available in the Muslim world.  Coming back to madrassah education reforms: ideally there should be one educational curriculum for 12-13 years of education prior to which no specialization should be allowed. This curriculum should be broad-based and should follow modern pedagogical insights placing emphases on learning and discovering, rather than on teaching and pontificating. After 12-13 years of proper and adequate education, a student would have some sense to decide for himself, as to what he wants to be.  If he wants to go to a madrassah or seminary, they should be open to him with the highest possible standards of scholarship of his own choice. But if he wants to opt for medicine or engineering or the liberal arts, opportunity should be made available to him to prove his mettle in these areas. The important point is to let a broadly educated youth partake in the decision-making process. Making primary education compulsory may be a step in the right direction.

The reason, I advocate 12-13 years of common primary and secondary education as a precondition of entering a seminary is that religion is a serious matter and its teaching and research cannot be left in the hands of half-lettered teachers commonly employed in the madrassahs. Moreover the pedagogical methodology used in madrassahs freezes the minds of the learners and makes them incapable of entertaining fresh ideas or widening the horizons of knowledge even at a later stage of their lives. Unfortunately the condition of the present primary and secondary level education is also far from satisfactory. A serious attempt is required to re-orientate school education and change its pedagogical methodology. This cannot be done by bureaucratic ‘dictat’ alone.

4. The Paradigm:

Reverting back to the necessity of a paradigm change for understanding our culture based on religious precepts. It is a sine-qua-non for re-structuring our society on a sound basis. Any cosmetic changes in the madarassah curriculum or introducing religious courses in primary and secondary schools would neither make a person Islamic nor modern. The paradigm I am referring to, which requires a shift is the authoritarian framework on which our social, legal, educational and religious life is structured. The social mindset is feudal, the legal is authoritarian, the educational is regimentational and the religious is totally deductive and formal. The religious mindset is not even prepared to entertain the idea that moral values can be intrinsic.  We need an authentification from an all powerful monarch through whose fiat actions and concepts become valuable or loose their values. The legal structure of Muslim society draws its authentification from certain major premises accepted and approved by a society which existed more than a thousand years ago and it is assumed that it requires no change or improvement.

What is more urgently required by Pakistan is a critical mass of Social Scientists, Anthropologists, Philosophers and Historians, who should start a re-examination of the paradigm and suggest alternatives without sacrificing the basic value system. The qualitative leap from the middle ages to modernity was made possible through such a shift of the paradigm of Knowledge. Unfortunately, we are still mentally living in the middle ages and hope that scientific inventions and adoption of Information Technology would bring about a change in the basic structure of our society. I am not denying the fact that development in science and technology does have an impact on social structures but the real benefit of these developments can only be obtained when there is no conflicting mindset operating at large in the society.

The governments in the past probably realized  the urgency of the problem and the necessity of solving it and constituted a number of institutions and commissions to work in this direction, the important ones were the Central Institute of Islamic Research and the Pakistan Historical Commission. During the early days of the establishment of the Islamic Institute, when Dr. Fazal-ur-Rehman was its Director, the Institute did initiate a thinking process to facilitate a possible paradigm shift but unfortunately the powerful lobbies of conservative ideas compelled the State authorities to put a stop to this process. It is not suggested or advocated that the opinion of a particular person or lobby is necessarily wrong or right, what is urged here is only the necessity of starting the thinking process afresh. The Pakistan Historical Commission also failed to rise to the occasion and failed to examine our history objectively. It is unfortunate that such institutions in Pakistan become tools for fulfilling the requirements of the ruling elite. The necessity of establishing such institutions with complete autonomy is more urgent today than never before. The decisions we take today and in the near future for moulding our society on sound lines may affect our very existence as a composite dynamic society. Since the human resource in Pakistan in these areas is scarce we should draw upon the human resource of the Muslim ummah and take the matter more seriously than we have been doing so far. It is much too lop-sided to think about science and technology only and neglect the very root cause of the decay of our social structures which can only be addressed by a different paradigm of knowledge.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmad is the Rector of the International Islamic University , Islamabad.

[1] The author is the Rector of the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

[2] Education Reform in Pakistan, Building for the Future, ed. Robert M. Hattaway, Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington DC

[3] See Manzoor Ahmad, ‘Pakistan Aporia of its Kind’, Pakistan the Contours of State and Society, OUP. 2002