International pressure post 9/11, primarily from the US, has also played a role in furthering these efforts.
Zubaida Jalal, Pakistan’s high-profile minister for education and Nancy Powell, the United States ambassador joined teachers and students recently in painting classroom walls at the Kanwal Community Model School.
Situated on the outskirts of Islamabad, Nairola village had been without a school until the official National Education Foundation (NEF) partnered with the community to begin the community-owned primary school.
The school had opened its doors with only one small room; most of the children sat in the open air for instruction until a philanthropist’s donation helped add two more rooms to accommodate the growing number of children.
The presence of dignitaries for the painting of the school walls, however, prompted many to ask as to whether this underscored a renewed government commitment to promote education.
“If the government spending on education in general drops by 0.7% to a paltry 1.7% of the GDP, and the number of primary schools declines from 11% to an alarming 3% in the last seven years, how can it prove its dedication to the sector?” asks Ahsan Iqbal, a professor at the private Mohammad Ali Jinnah university.
As for higher education, the situation until early 2003 looked even more dismal.
There are just about 5000 who have cleared their doctorals (PhDs) in the country and every year, 250 candidates are added to the list.
Absence of official patronage, shortage of research facilities and lack of qualified instructors are some of the factors that impede higher-level education, forcing many students to go abroad for their doctoral studies.
President Musharraf (R) faces
“There is now a growing realisation that we have to improve our system of education in a systematic manner by establishing centres of excellence and institutionalise checks and balances on performances of educational institutions,” says renowned scientist Dr Atta-ur-Rehman.
Rehman heads the Higher Education Commission (HEC), set up in November 2002 to transform the education sector, and elevate about four dozen public and private universities to international standards.
Buoyed by a $100 million US grant for education sector reforms programme signed in August 2002, the HEC has now embarked on an ambitious 1200 a year PhD enrolment programme.
For rampant corruption, the Berlin-based watchdog – Transparency International – had once placed Pakistan among the most corrupt nations in the world.
“Misuse of foreign grants and local resources as well as an obstructionist bureaucracy and unwilling ruling elite have all retarded Pakistan’s educational growth,” said Tayyaba Jalal, a lecturer at the Karachi University.
“Misuse of foreign grants and local resources have retarded Pakistan’s educational growth”
Another major challenge is the Pervez Musharraf government’s efforts to improve primary education at some 10,000 religious seminaries across the country where more than half a million predominantly poor children are learning the Quran and related subjects.
Though some of them had existed even before Pakistan’s creation in 1947, most emerged during and after the Soviet-Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
A small number of these seminaries were involved in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and their sectarian trappings.
As a result, President Pervez Musharraf had last year ordered a crackdown on them. A new law was introduced which required that all religious institutions subject their rolls and accounts to official scrutiny.
The government estimates that only 2% of the madrasas(seminaries) may be involved in sectarian and political violence but hopes to contain them through the new laws.
“The registration process has been made compulsory to ensure that neither local nor foreign students indulge in mischief,” Education Minister Zubaida Jalal says.
Following new regulations, several hundred students from different Islamic countries have either voluntarily left or been deported during the past 18 months.
But parent organisations of the seminaries have yet to accede to most government requirements for registration.
“The registration procedures amount to a direct interference in our affairs and we still have serious reservations about it”
Maulana Gahafoor Haideri
MP and central leader of JUI
“The registration procedures amount to a direct interference in our affairs and we still have serious reservations about it,” Maulana Gahafoor Haideri said. Haideri is an MP and central leader of the Jamiat Ulmai Islam (JUI), which runs hundreds of madrasas in different parts of the country.
Internal political dynamics, however, seem to have taken Pakistan government’s attention off the issue. It is trying to win over an alliance of religious parties for survival and most of these parties patronise and run seminaries.
“If the politics of expedience nullifies the registration procedures it will stop attracting poor people and work to the disadvantage of educational reforms,” says Dr Tariq Rehman, an Islamabad-based linguistics scholar.
While the Pakistani government continues its drive to improve the quality of education, the ability of the country to catch up with the rest of the world depends on the quality of that effort.