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Old Saturday, February 08, 2014
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Default Reforming education

Reforming education

It is not possible to create an a priori blueprint for reforming the entire educational system. The creation of such a blueprint can only be led by major stakeholders within Pakistan, such as the government, political leaders, and civil society. The stakeholder buy-in is crucial because any effort will require making serious choices about the level of resources to commit to each sector, and choosing what to reform and how. Still, important principles of reform can be discussed a priori to guide the creation of detailed blueprints.

First, any reform must be systemic, ie focus on a defined set of areas for each sector and address them simultaneously (eg, governance, fiscal resources, human resources, curriculum, infrastructure) rather than omitting one. Areas such as these are crucially interlinked, and omitting one is likely to hamper progress in the others. Moreover, meaningful and sustainable long-term change cannot be achieved by tackling them one at a time.

Second, standards of excellence for institutions must be tailored to purpose. Systems of education are like terrains, with their own peaks and valleys. A system is excellent if it has a variety of institutions that are ‘fit for purpose’ – delivering what they are designed for within their resource constraints. Not every institution needs to be the best research university; some institutions should necessarily aim at other purposes. Aiming for excellence of the system must not impose uniform standards of performance on all institutions.

Third, implementation resources must be carefully nurtured and protected. Implementation eventually comes down to people who have the motivation, skill, experience and resolve to build and maintain a reform effort. Promising reforms often fail when one or two key people exit. For this reason, it is important to recognise the dangers of replacing teams before the ground gained in reform has been secured. This is particularly important because of the difficulty of replacing talent in Pakistan, and the high learning costs for new participants.

Getting from these principles to actual reform blueprints will require overcoming multiple challenges. One challenge will be to get serious system-level reform, rather than piecemeal initiatives, firmly on the agenda of the government. The current government has taken helm at a time of other highly emotive and visible problems such as the economy, energy, and security. Persistently high inflation, meagre economic growth, increasing energy riots, growing sectarian violence and other security incidents are daily news.

The political capital gained from addressing these pressing problems is much greater than a longer-term payoff from investing as education, which will make it hard to focus the government on education system reform.

A second challenge in initiating reform will be the institutional impasse in education created by the 18th Amendment. This impasse has left the government uncertain about who is responsible and has authority and accountability for different sectors of education. Resolving this uncertainty is crucial because actors will be reluctant to stake political capital as long as it is unclear who can take credit for achievements in reform. In the current inertia, it will be very challenging to mobilise communities of reform around an agenda.

But the biggest challenge of educational reform in Pakistan will be implementation. The problem in Pakistan’s educational system is not just deciding what needs to be done, but in resolving the Gordian knot of who will do it. Most people in Pakistan will probably agree that the problem in past education reforms was implementation. Thus even if there is government intent, the lack of implementation capacity will be a major challenge to be addressed before and during any reform effort.

However, evidence from other countries demonstrates that civil society can both play a role in pushing for systematic reform as well as mitigating the implementation challenge. Where parents participate actively in their children’s education, educational outcomes improve. Mechanisms to increase clients’ power by increasing transparency in the education system have shown positive results.

Another important consequence of increasing clients’ power is that it allows civil society to organise and lobby, to break the destructive nexus between public officials and public institutions that creates dysfunction. Thus even while changing the provider side of the education system, increasing clients’ power can contribute significantly to ensuring that reforms are sustained.

The key messages for Pakistan are that it is imperative to initiate education system reform while a window of opportunity still exists to do so. But such reform must tackle all sectors of the education system – primary/secondary schooling, higher education and vocational education – as Pakistan does not have the luxury to delay reform in one sector until the other sectors improve.

Further, reform in every sector must be systemic – That is, with well-defined goals, and a focus on a well-defined set of areas such as governance, financing, human resources, curriculum and infrastructure – and then addressing them all together, rather than piecemeal.

Finally, the all-important Achilles’ heel of reform is implementation, where Pakistan has chronically limited resources and has often foundered. But there are examples that show that success is achievable if government and civil society can gather the will to initiate and sustain reform.


This article is based on the chapter, ‘Education system reform in Pakistan: Why, When, How?’ in the book Education & Skills 2.0: New Targets & Innovative Approaches, published by the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Education & Skills and launched on January 22, 2014.

The writers are from the Children’s Global Network – Pakistan; Harvard School of Public Health; Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank; and the Population Council – Pakistan, respectively.
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