Sunday, October 10, 2010

18th Amendment and Education

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn, Monday, 11 Oct, 2010

THE 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan is an important step forward for the parliamentary system in the country. It promises more autonomy to the provinces — a popular demand put forward by a number of political parties.Apart from the political restructuring it mandates, the amendment also holds some major implications for the country’s system of education. Through it a new article, 25A, has been inserted into the constitution that reads: “Right to education: The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law.” This is an important undertaking by the state since education, in contemporary times, is considered an important tool for enhancing one’s chances for socioeconomic development.

In Pakistan, a large number of students do not have access to schools or drop out before they reach the fifth grade. A major reason behind the high dropout rate is poverty, and as a result a large number of children remain illiterate and cannot become part of the literate human resource group which is vital for the development of a country. An effective implementation of this article of the constitution would without doubt pave the way for enriching the national human capital.
Another major implication of the 18th Amendment for education is that the curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education will fall under the purview of the provinces. This is a big step forward for education.The 18th Amendment, passed unanimously by parliament, was the result of a rare consensus between all the major political parties. After becoming a part of the constitution, however, some strong voices of dissent were raised by different quarters, including the Ministry of Education. A campaign has been initiated to spread the idea that the provinces are not ready to take up the massive challenge of dealing with the provision of education. This claim is made on the assumption that the provinces do not have the capacity or the financial resources to cope with the huge challenge in front of them.
It has been argued that the contents of the curricula should remain with the federation since the provinces could take liberties which may result in putting the unity and ideology of the country at risk. Critics have asked how standards would be maintained across the provinces and how quality would be assured. And what if all the provinces introduced regional languages in schools? Would this weaken the federation?
Looking at the above points, one can understand the federation’s concern regarding the future of education once it becomes a provincial responsibility. However, this concern seems to emanate primarily from a lack of trust in the capacity and ability of the provinces.
It is interesting to note, though, that the provinces are already providing for school and college education and they do have the capacity (in terms of intellectual resources) to handle the job. As far as funds are concerned, the provinces have been funding education from their budgets. The federation would give partial grants to the universities only.
The provinces should have the autonomy to design the curricula according to contextual needs and learners’ requirement. If the federation is very concerned about the curriculum issue, it can keep Islamiat and Pakistan Studies under its control. The curricula for other subjects should be designed by the provinces concerned. Education standards can be monitored through provincial quality assurance departments and the inter-provincial coordination committee. Similarly, the provinces may introduce regional languages as a subject in their respective provinces as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is attempting to do.
This right was already there, even before the 18th Amendment. The diversity of languages is more likely to strengthen the federation, rather than weaken it. Recall that the denial of the demand to name Bangla as a national language in addition to Urdu played a major part in the separation of East Pakistan.
A cursory glance at the points above tells us that all the problems can be resolved without much ado. It seems, however, that concerns about the incapability of provinces to deal with educational responsibilities emerge from a trust deficit where the centre, in its self-righteous manner, doubts the competence and integrity of the provinces. Why is that so? Why this reluctance on the part of the federation? Why these fears that the provinces may mess up the education system?
To understand this, we need to realise that education has a strong link with power. Education, as political theorist Gramsci suggested, can pay an important part in controlling minds. Historically education has been used to take and maintain control of marginalised countries and groups, so if education becomes a provincial matter, certain powerful groups and organisations see it as a shift in power which is not in their favour. The outcome is a lot of hue and cry, and the offering of lame excuses.
What is required at this point is a positive attitude by the federation, a trust in the competence, integrity and patriotism of the provinces. As has been suggested, there are two kinds of federations in the world: hold-together and come-together. We need to make a move from holding the provinces together to persuading them to come together. The 18th Amendment provides an excellent opportunity for such a paradigm shift.

The writer is a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.