Education Debate in Pakistan: Barking up the Wrong Tree?

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The following originally appeared in the Social Science and Policy Bulletin. Irfan Muzaffar is an independent researcher and Faisal Bari is lead education economist and researcher for South Asia for the Education Support Program.

In this brief paper, the authors remind readers of the three basic, and by now rather well-known, characteristics of the current educational landscape of Pakistan: the increase in growth of private sector schools, the concomitant decline in quality of public sector schools, and the abysmal learning gains by students in both. The authors then use this reminder to argue that the situation is ripe for a divisive and ultimately counterproductive educational sectarianism, with opinion polarized in favor of and against a laissez-faire policy toward private education.

As a result, several recent and well-meaning comparative studies of Pakistani private and public schools, such as that of Andrabi, Das, and Khwaja (2008), are in danger of being interpreted along ideological lines by opposite camps on the private versus public school wars. Assuming education to be both a public and private good, the authors regard such interpretations to be counterproductive from a policy perspective. Given the low levels of academic achievement recorded for both sectors irrespective of marginal superiority of private schools, both sectors need support for improvement.

Furthermore, they use Hirschman's typology of voice, exit, and loyalty as a starting point to argue that the challenge for improving public sector schools is much harder. The point of the article is that a private-versus-public debate can blind us to the consequences of leaving the public sector to wither in the absence of enough influence (or voice, in terms of Hirschman's typology) needed for its improvement.