Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Education: Changing the Tunes

The state of education in Pakistan is depressing. Today we cannot compete even with third-rate countries in standard indicators of academic achievement. Weak curricula and discipline have guaranteed educational failure for tens of millions of our children. The nation should therefore look to itself and conclude that something must be done.

We are perhaps after increasing the number of educational institutions and ignoring the future of education, which is about the demise of the classroom-based teacher, and an information technology lead revolution in schools, colleges and universities.

For meeting our future economic needs, we must not lose sight of the fact that education is a process, not a commodity. It benefits the individual, and society as a whole, in all sorts of ways that are not necessarily quantifiable in terms of our national balance sheet.

Developed societies use teachers not as objects, but engines of education reform. Contrarily, our policymakers use them not as engines but tail cabins. Thus teachers are not involved in policy process for education. We need to see teachers as custodians of intellectual and cultural tradition, not servants of a government mission.

The report of the Pakistan Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education estimates that 18 million people are in the age between 17 to 23 years, eligible for tertiary education. Out of them, only 475,000 (or about 2.6%) are actually enrolled in higher education institutions. This proportion is among the lowest in the world: India (in 1990) had a tertiary enrolment ratio of 6.2%, while Iran (in 1994) had 12.7%. This is pathetic. It asks for direction and relevancy of higher education research.

Higher education in Turkey is worth talking about. The average annual growth rate of students in higher education in Turkey during the period 1980-85 was one of the highest in the world: 14.1% as compared to 7.8%in Canada, 5.0% in the UK, 1.4% in Italy, 0.2% in the US, -0.2% in Hungary, and -5.3% in Poland. The number of students enrolled in engineering is high: 18.33 %of the total enrollment as compared to 8.20 %in Italy, 7.90 %in Austria, and 3.29 %in France. In the area of higher education, can we seek some route from Turkey’s experience?

People need more education than ever before, and distance learning—connecting cable and classroom—offers a way to meet that need. Internet delivers course material to homes or offices. Discussions, assignments and exams are being done online. Some of these are courses offered by traditional universities, of which the University of Phoenix is the largest, some by accredited virtual universities with no on-campus instruction and some by unaccredited institutions. For many students, however, especially those with full-time jobs or those far from campuses, the savings in commuting and the flexibility to make their own schedules make the total cost less than that of alternatives.

The concept of virtual university is not a bad idea, which Pakistan must adopt at a large scale. It can distribute cheap Internet access and classroom content to modular learning kiosks in several thousand villages. Distributing several thousand simple, mass-produced kiosks might be less expensive than creating even one old-style university campus.

Pakistan has recently allocated resources greater than ever before. Nonetheless, it didn’t fully utilize even what paltry had been allocated earlier. Owing to intricate bureaucratic labyrinth drawing money is like pulling teeth. Consequently, the trend of spending in Pakistan is far less than the allocated money in all eight plans. There are around twenty-two steps to draw the allocated money. For survival in the new world, Pakistan has got to adopt new ways of governance.

South Korea offers an interesting paradigm in modern history. Most observers agree that it's spectacular progress in modernization and economic growth since the Korean War is largely attributed to the willingness of individuals to invest a large amount of resources in education.

Korea's liberation from Japan marked a turning point in the history of education. As the country underwent a transition from totalitarian rule to democracy, a primary concern was to provide everybody with equal educational opportunities. The period from 1945 to 1970 witnessed a dramatic expansion of education. In spite of the widespread destruction and economic suffering brought about by the Korean War (1950-1953), Korea succeeded in virtually eliminating illiteracy. Such a rapid expansion was naturally accompanied by problems, the most serious being deterioration in the quality of education. As the 1960s drew to a close, Korea's educators turned their attention to these problems and several projects were launched to improve the curricula and the methods of instruction

Although only primary school was compulsory in Korea, proportion of age-groups of children and young people enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary level schools were equivalent to those found in industrialized countries, including Japan. The percentage of students going on to optional middle school the same year was more than 99 percent. Approximately 34 percent, one of the world's highest rates of secondary-school graduates attended institutions of higher education in 1987, a rate similar to Japan's (about 30 percent) and exceeding Britain's (20 percent). The number of students in higher education had risen from 100,000 in 1960 to 1.3 million in 1987, and the proportion of college-age students in higher education institutions was second only to the United States.

Can Pakistan learn from the South Korean experience that explains the important role of education in its evolution from one of the world's poorest countries 50 years ago eating dogs to fuel the stomach, into a major economic success today?

A serious look at the state of the world raises a question regarding the thought process of Pakistan’s decision makers. Years of traditional education are no guarantee of a mature intellect. Entrenched mentalities need to change or institutions will continue to play the same old games and repeat the same old tunes. Schools of the future have an opportunity and responsibility to change the tune. (