Free and Compulsory Education

The following originally appeared in the Daily Times, Pakistan.

With a burgeoning private sector in education claiming over 40 percent of all enrollment, the public sector schools lie in shambles, unable to retain and educate an increasing school age population. This gap between the rhetoric and practice has only widened through these years. There is, therefore, a strong sense of déjà vu about 25A that is not easy to dismiss.

Article 25A, according to the 18th constitutional amendment, declares “education free and compulsory for all children of the age of 5 to 16 years, in such manner as may be determined by law.” While this may be a welcome development for advocates of universal quality education, it is also an occasion for serious reflection, both retrospective and prospective. We need to understand what is new about this development. Is there sufficient reason to let go of the overwhelming pessimism about our past educational performance. After all, the state has been a signatory to Education For All (EFA) and has also endorsed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If it has not been able to deliver on any of its earlier commitments, what makes us think that it would do so after the constitutional amendment?

To think through this question, let us dwell for a bit on the phrase ‘basic rights’. Notwithstanding the jurisprudential niceties and legalese, ‘basic rights’ suggest a necessity, a statutory obligation, for all constitutional authorities to ensure their universal provision to all citizens. The need to ensure the provision of basic rights trumps all other needs. This is all we need to understand to see the gravity of what has been achieved through Article 25A. If the constitution is to be upheld, all organs of the state must ensure that the basic rights are delivered to the people. Furthermore, the citizens can invoke the 18th Amendment to seek justice in case a government fails to deliver the right to education.

But there is more to it. Regarding education as compulsory, even with the proviso clause at the end, implies that the right to education is not negotiable. It renders any entity that comes in the way of education of children age 5-16 a culpable offender. If this does not establish the primacy of education as a basic right, then we do not know what else would. Yet, we must not forget our history of persistent failure in all matters of education, especially in the wake of calls to universalize education in the early 1990s.

The EFA movement took off after the World Conference on EFA in 1990. EFA permeated the policy agenda of the governments and became a basis for the actions of non-governmental and civil society organizations, bilateral and multilateral donor agencies. The imperative for universal education, reiterated in the Dakar Declaration (2000) and the MDGs was repeatedly textured into all the major policy documents produced by the government of Pakistan and worked as the basis for advocacy campaigns of the Global Campaign for Education and its local affiliates. The goals of the assistance, advocacy campaigns, and policy and planning remained an improvement in the public school system through a variety of reform mechanisms.

Following these international developments, education in Pakistan has witnessed two contradictory phenomena: an increasingly loud rhetoric to universalize education and a concomitant deterioration in the capacity of the state to deliver on this rhetoric. With a burgeoning private sector in education claiming over 40 percent of all enrollment, the public sector schools lie in shambles, unable to retain and educate an increasing school age population. This gap between the rhetoric and practice has only widened through these years. There is, therefore, a strong sense of déjà vu about 25A that is not easy to dismiss.

For Pakistan, the EFA movement did not begin in 1990. The importance of universal education is mentioned in all policy documents since the inception of the state in 1947. However, these documents also recognized the inability of the state to deliver on this imperative due to resource constraints. For example, Article 29 of the 1973 Constitution defined education as part of the “principles of policy”, while urging the state to observe those principles “depending upon the resources being available for the purpose.” Thus, while education was deemed important by the state, the citizens were not provided any statutory entitlement to it. The state protected itself from lawsuits by refraining from proving constitutional guarantees. Private actors were welcomed to fill the gap through a laissez faire policy. This liberal posture toward private education was only interrupted during the 1970s by the first PPP government. Thus, the progressively atrophying state-run schools system and a laissez faire policy toward private entrepreneurs created the conditions for rapid growth of private schools.

So, 20 years down the road toward universal education, all we have is an ailing public school system. As newborns in the early 1990s grow to be school-ready, their parents can readily find for them a private school around the corner. Things have now come to a pass where the authors will be happily surprised if those reading this article knew ‘anyone’ in their circle who sent their children to a public school. The public school system has been thoroughly and comprehensively abandoned by people with any socio-economic or political standing in Pakistan. So as the public schools persistently fail and a private school market of uneven quality springs up, there still remain approximately 17-odd million 5–16-year-olds out of school.

Given all of this, are we really ready to make education “free and compulsory” for all children? The insertion of 25A cannot be implemented in its letter and spirit by simply underlining through a constitutional amendment the commitment to make schools accessible to all children. The government(s) cannot have a viable plan without thinking through the financial, legal, technical, and systemic implications of the promise made to the people of Pakistan through 25A. For it to be of any import, the technical appraisal will need to be backed by a political consensus. This calls for deliberative dialogues within and between the civil and political actors of society. In countries that take their education seriously, such a constitutional amendment would have spawned a flurry of rigorous policy analysis and civil and political deliberation. Let us hope for this to be the case here as well.

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