OPINION: All in schools…

ISLAMABAD (Dawn/ANN) - Costs can be cut significantly by revisiting our education model.

The dream is ‘education for all’ but the question is how to finance that dream. Many parents face the hard choice between owning a home and paying for the education of their children. A nation that is faced with the ‘hard’ choice of building flyovers that save five minutes of traffic time and putting 1,000 of its children in school should go for the latter option.

Unfortunately, over the last 70 years, the country has not exhibited parental feelings towards its children, choosing to spend on things other than education. Finding the money to educate all calls for a reset of priorities by putting education on top of the list. Here are some examples of getting our priorities right, in order to raise money for putting all in school.

The federal Public Sector Development Plan (PSDP) 2018-19, framed under the previous government, includes a ‘Plan House’ to be built at a cost of Rs500 million in Islamabad. A project conceived by the Planning Commission, Plan House envisages accommodating delegates coming to Islamabad for conferences and meetings. The delegates can continue to stay at hotels, the Plan House can be shelved, and the Rs500m saved can be used to enrol out-of-school children. Similarly, a planned mosque for the Pak Secretariat in Islamabad (Rs439m) can be delayed.

The same goes for additional family suites, including 500 quarters for domestic staff (Rs2,908m) to be built at the Parliamentary Lodges, Islamabad. A thorough analysis can identify many projects worth billions that can be either shelved or delayed to put children in schools.

A balance between state funding for higher education and primary education is called for. Suppose a father has two sons and two options: the first is to spend on the education of both in good schools for 14 years, and the second is to finance a doctorate programme at a top-ranked foreign university for one, and not put the second one in school due to lack of money. Parental justice demands that both sons should be educated. Unfortunately, we as a nation have chosen to finance the higher education of a small fraction in developed countries, while leaving millions uneducated.

This approach is socially unjust, contributes to unemployment, yields uninformed voters and breeds criminals, at times even suicide bombers. Thus the losses that the uneducated may inflict on society are much greater than the benefits that a PhD scholar in nano technology from one of the Ivy League universities can bring to the country. A re-examination of national priorities is overdue.

The idea of making higher education accessible has led to the allocation of funds in PSDP 2018-19 for establishing universities in remote areas such as Dir, Turbat, Khuzdar, Pishin and Sibi to name a few. As per the latest data, the literacy rate declined in Sibi. This suggests that remote districts might in fact be in need of primary schools rather than universities. Again, those out of school can be enrolled by rethinking our higher education policy.

The schooling cost for the state can be cut significantly by revisiting our schooling model which, following the West, needs primary schools that are located close to home. Instead, we could have big schools within a radius of, say, 15 kilometres from home, targeting may be 2,000 students instead of 200. This would not only save costs but also address the scarcity of qualified teachers.

The travelling time for children might increase but perhaps they are even now spending this time walking from home to school, especially in remote areas without roads. Instead of providing schools closer to home, the state should focus on constructing roads from villages to towns and using state transport to ferry children from home to school. To the cliché ‘farm-to-market roads’ we need to add ‘home-to-school roads’.

Finally, while dams may not be an ideal thing to build with charity money, establishing and running hospitals and schools with it is quite possible, because people can see the fruit of their contributions rather quickly. In India, before the arrival of the British, education was largely gratuitous. A rich Hindu or Muslim would engage a teacher to teach his children and would invite parents in the neighbourhood to send theirs as well. In the West, endowments from philanthropists contribute significantly to running universities.

Many success stories of educational institutions being run with charity money can be cited in today’s Pakistan as well. A mega charity effort, led by the prime minister himself, for putting children in schools would have bright chances of success.

The writer is dean, Air University School of Management, and is associated with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad.

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