Pakistan: Lagging Education; the Achilles' Heel in Pakistani Development

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 3, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Pakistan: Lagging Education; the Achilles' Heel in Pakistani Development

Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

PAKISTAN: Lagging Education; The Achilles' Heel in Pakistani Development

Most Pakistanis would place among Pakistan's top problems its 37 percent literacy rate, its seemingly irrepressible 2.8 percent birth rate, and its lack of progress in creating jobs for its burgeoning younger generation. Some would add to this dismal trio human rights, specifically ineluding equal rights for women.

Pakistanis may disagree as to which of these three, or four, major problems comes first, but all can agree that none can be solved until there is greatly increased progress on the education front, specifically the problem of keeping Pakistani children, particularly girls, in school.

Male literacy in Pakistan is 50 percent. Female literacy is only 20 percent. Dr. Akhtar Hasan Khan, Pakistan's secretary of education, who reports directly to the minister of education, explains that there are many reasons, most of them cultural, for the disparity.

Given the scarcity of skilled jobs for young people, parents see little point in sending their girls to school. Further, if schools are more than an easy walk from their homes, parents are uneasy about their daughters' security. The fact is, says Dr. Khan, girls still are not treated equally in Pakistan and the disparity in education perpetuates this unequal treatment, forming a vicious circle.

In addition to the gap in male/female educational standards, Pakistan has other educational problems, according to Dr. Khan, who holds an M.A. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D in economics from Tufts University in Massachusetts. One such problem is the medium of instruction.

Many Pakistanis speak a local language like Punjabi or Sindhi at home. However, in the public schools the medium of instruction from the beginning of the primary level is the national language, Urdu, and then, a couple of years later, but still at the primary level, students begin taking some classes where the medium of instruction is English. As they move every day from classes taught in Urdu to classes taught in English and back again, Dr. Khan believes, many of the students do not actually master the subject matter, particularly the majority of students who do not speak either language at home.

Further, this Pakistani educational official explains, since the days of British rule there has been an emphasis in the school system on arts and letters curricula. "Such a curriculum does not prepare people for jobs," says Dr. Khan, "but our vocational and technical education facilities are not very strong."

The Pakistani government tries to rectify this problem by confining its scholarships for training abroad largely to technical subjects that will prepare its brightest students to fill needs at home. Unfortunately, providing such opportunities, particularly when the study is in the United States, sometimes exacerbates the problem. The pay for technical professions in the United States far surpasses that in Pakistan, and many Pakistani students studying abroad find the means to stay there.

"Students from wealthy families generally return," says Dr. Khan. But middle-class students tend to stay in the United States, increasing the brain drain from which Pakistan has suffered since its creation. Pakistan's proximity to oil-producing Arab states, where jobs and relatively high salaries have been available to Pakistanis since the 1960s, has been another, major factor in this brain drain. The difference is that Pakistanis employed in the Arab states of the Gulf are denied citizenship and eventually come home, whereas most Pakistanis employed in the U.

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