Pakistan’s Education System: Key Challenges and Policy Recommendations

by Umar I. Akhtar

The author is a Research & Policy Analyst at the NUST Global Think Tank Network


Without education it is complete darkness and with education it is light. Education is a matter of life and death to our nation.

Quaid-e-Azam’s Message to NWFP Muslim Students Federation, April 1943



The subject of education constitutes the heart of all development in a country. The strategic significance of a farsighted, well-planned, widely affordable and modern education system cannot be overlooked by the decision makers. The creation, maintenance and constant evolution of such a system must be made the top priority of the state.



The founder of Pakistan was explicit in his views concerning the critical role and importance of education for the prosperity and security of the country. He recognized that the fortification and sanctity of the state necessitated a well-educated, humane and enlightened public that contributed to the development of a vibrant knowledge-based economy. In today’s world of soft-power and digitization, coercive diplomacy and swings in global opinion can swiftly alter a country’s course of destiny through evolving propaganda, perpetuation of myths, false narratives and other forms of subterfuge. In this increasingly sophisticated and perilous atmosphere, citizens need to acquire sufficient wisdom and discernment to correctly interpret mutating threats and challenges that continue to have a destabilizing effect on them and their nation.

This ability to correctly decipher and deal with the complex challenges of today’s globalizing world should be the natural outcome of a cutting-edge, well-rounded and untainted education system that promotes intellectual acumen and critical thought coupled with good character, magnanimity and altruism. The collective consciousness of such a society would be infused with the spirit of inquiry and it would bear the confidence and ability to create and innovate scientifically across multi-dimensional planes. An ideal education system would benefit all sections of society by promoting the inner and outer enhancement of the human being and by extension of society as a whole, leading to peace and equitable economic development. A human-centric form of development that cultivates citizens both morally and intellectually would result in greater socio-cultural harmony and well-being. Ultimately, a holistic approach of this nature should encourage the acquisition of deeper knowledge, awareness and wisdom which is arguably synonymous with the ‘light’ that Quaid-e-Azam refers to in the aforementioned quote.


Current Situation

A look at Pakistan’s standing in health and primary education on the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) in 2016 reveals that the country stands at a low 128 among 138 countries. In higher education and training it is currently ranked 123rd. These sorry statistics mirror poor educational outcomes as observed in a recent report stating that there are 24 million out-of-school children in Pakistan, the second highest figure in the world after Nigeria. According to the annual Pakistan Education Statistics report for 2014-2015, of the 50.8 million children aged 5 to 16 in Pakistan, 47 per cent do not receive any formal education.This is a striking example of how our public education system has been a complete failure. The vision of Quaid-e-Azam and the initial educational goals envisaged by the founding fathers have not been achieved. This needs to be remedied with a great sense of urgency. According to World Bank, the government allocated an estimated 2.49% of total GDP for education in 2013. An article published in Dawn last year stated that the country’s expenditure on education was the lowest in South Asia. This partly explains the low literacy rate of 58%, a figure that falls short of the target of 88% that was set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). This figure is also misleading when considering that successive governments in Pakistan have focused on functional literacy rather than critical literacy.

In the recent report by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a British higher education ranking agency, that compares the standards of higher education in 50 countries, Pakistan ranks dead last with a score of 9.2. The U.S. and U.K ranked top with scores of 100 and 98.5 respectively, while India stood at 24th with a score of 60.9. Despite the government’s claims to have invested billions in the country’s education system, Pakistan secured the lowest ranking of the fifty countries included in the list. Other rankings reveal great differences in the quality of education within and between provinces. According to the former UNDP Country Director, Marc Andre Franche, rankings highlight the systematic inequalities among districts and the regions in Pakistan and the state of education in the districts of South Punjab, Balochistan and Fata is worse than some of the Sub-Saharan African countries, while some districts of North Punjab emulate developed countries like Canada. It can be argued that Pakistan has a system akin to an ‘Educational Apartheid’ where the English-language based education system for the elite is completely different from the low-quality curriculum designed for the poor. This stark contrast reinforces a divisive socio-economic and cultural reality where social mobility for talented individuals from poor backgrounds remains limited and in many ways restricted. This system is cynical considering the notion that education is supposed to create a level playing field that has an equalizing effect in terms of social and economic outcomes.


Historical Basis of Current Shortcomings

There is a common misconception about the Sub-Continent’s education system prior to British intervention. The myth of a practically non-existent public education system is perpetuated to this day, implying that the indigenous people of the subcontinent, prior to European intervention, were benighted, ignoble, illiterate and uncivilized. Research however indicates that evidence is at odds with what is commonly believed. Various accounts reveal that the pre-British system of education was advanced for its time and people from all walks of life would travel to the sub-continent in search of wisdom and learning. In those days it was considered a religious duty for both Muslims and Hindus to support learned intellectuals so as to reduce their worldly burdens, allowing them to focus on their quest for knowledge. This support was freely given, especially by the well-to-do, because there was a keen general consciousness in those days, at least amongst denizens of the urban centers of the Sub-continent that production and dissemination of knowledge was vital for the preservation and progress of society. Sources reveal that the pre-British urban culture of the Sub-continent culture was in fact intellectually vibrant with libraries, public debates and intellectual competitions.

The destruction of the Sub-continent’s education system was part of the deliberate colonial policy to subjugate and dominate. The demolition was so complete that the faintest memory of a once strong education system prior to British occupation barely lingers. The abrupt replacement of the native educational system with one of a different philosophical ethos, albeit in certain technical ways more advanced, led to the loss of self-confidence that is the hallmark of any good educational system. The current inquiry is not motivated by an obscurantist desire to glorify the old and devalue modernity. As a result of a disruptive socio-historical process of change, today’s colleges and universities are viewed as a means of gaining employment mainly rather than as centers that promote balanced education inspired by intellectual and spiritual growth and enlightenment. This “Neo-Macaulyist” educational regime is continuing to promote educated dullness and inferiority complexes due to the perpetuation of prejudiced perspectives and automatic rather than deliberate discrimination of students based on their socio-economic standing in life. This calls for a fundamental refurbishment of our education system. While addressing the glaring gaps and dangers that currently exist in our system we must prioritize the spirit of inquiry and critical thought rather than rote learning, while promoting character-building and moral development in light of Quaid’s vision.


  1. Pakistan’s standing on the GCI is dismal when compared to other countries in the region and beyond. This shows that current educational outcomes are poor and regressive. Remedying this situation is the responsibility and strategic duty of the government of Pakistan.
  2. Official statistics on education are unreliable.
  3. There appears to be a general gap between professed ideas and actual outcomes. There is interference with appointments, promotions and transfers in schools, colleges and universities.
  4. Lack of consistency – every new government tries to formulate a new education policy instead of continuing or improving upon the previous one.
  5. A very low budget is allocated for Education (2.5% of GDP). This problem is further aggravated by the fact that there is a lack of capacity to absorb funds. The money is often spent incorrectly with serious implementation gaps often due to misappropriation. Poor training of implementing bodies exacerbates the problem of improper utilization of resources. There is a general problem of poor governance and inadequate financial resources.
  6. There are several reasons why Pakistan’s Higher Education was rated so low in the QS ranking system. Although there is a quantitative expansion of universities, the quality remains an issue. Problems include low quality facilities, faculty, curriculum and teaching dynamics that focus on a memory oriented system of evaluation. Most buildings in the public sector are old or poorly maintained. Hiring of teachers is not always meritocratic in nature. Academic freedom of faculty in the public sector is at times and teacher salaries are low. The number of PhD’s in our academic institutions is unsatisfactory and few faculty are engaged in meaningful research. Limited resources coupled with the absence of strong research tradition creates a cycle where fresh ideas are ignored and the status quo is supported. It should also be noted that a very limited segment of the population has access to higher education.
  7. High dropout rates caused by various factors are another serious challenge and this keeps up the cycle of illiteracy in Pakistan.
  8. Policy reforms by foreign consultants/donors are based on limited understanding and ignorance of the complexities and nuances of local ground realities.
  9. Top down approach to policy making without enough horizontal and participatory consultation.
  10. There is a shortage of teachers with the total recently recorded as 1.5 million. This shortage is more evident in the public sector and the matter becomes worse when considering that due to poor monitoring and governance, many teachers are often absent from their classes. According to the Task Force for Education, 2011, 15-20 percent of teachers were not teaching in their respective class-rooms on any given day.
  11. Basic facilities, infrastructure and drinking water are lacking. The lack of resources makes it difficult to attain targets set in policy documents. Furthermore, inadequate boundaries for safety purposes often discourage parents from sending their daughters to school.
  12. There are competing governance units with little internal coordination – this fragmented approach to achieving different initiatives in achieving universal primary education, literacy and female education is also noted to have hindered the process of implementation.
  13. Monitoring and Evaluation: Most projects in literacy, UPE and female education lack effective monitoring systems. Projects often end without significant sustainable changes in target areas.



  1. The current schooling system can be roughly classified into six tiers. The least privileged children from rural sectors study in set-ups where there is practically no physical infrastructure, security or qualified teachers. The learning outcomes are unsatisfactory and rarely measured in these schools. The second tier consists of government schools based on low-quality curriculum. The third tier comprises semi-governmental educational institutions that are often NGO-assisted. The fourth tier is that of middle class, private educational institutes. The fifth tier, comparable in standard to tier-4 schools, contains Armed Forces-sponsored schools and institutes. Finally, for a privileged minority-elite and upper middle-class are the top schools where standards are generally high, although not necessarily cutting-edge. These relatively better schools have better learning outcomes but create a sense of superiority as well as alienation from the rest of society. A system of education needs to be devised where the rich and poor alike are to study under the same high standard curriculum. This enhanced and nationally unified curriculum would be adopted by both the public and private sectors. English, being the international language of commerce, will remain essential and will have to be prioritized for all members of society. The national language must also be made compulsory as a means of preserving our unique culture and heritage.
  2. A larger portion of the GDP will need to be allocated for education at all levels. A strict monitoring process will also need to be established at national and sub-national levels to ensure that the resources are not misappropriated and utilized for the desired purpose of improving the system.
  3. Donors should present their plans and clearly define their expected outputs, outcomes and impacts with the central government. After this is properly vetted, only then should they carry out their activities in the educational sector. There should be a monitoring and evaluation process carried out by intelligentsia to ensure that donors are keeping track with their goals.
  4. As part of a process of revamping the higher education system and its institutions, low quality facilities must be upgraded and given due attention. Faculty should go through a rigorous screening process and teachers should only be hired on merit. The curriculum should be designed to inspire creative thinking as well as the spirit of inquiry while being in-tune with the latest scientific developments and changes in the global economy. It should inspire students to think innovatively about ways to contribute and develop a superior social and political system that is not constrained by outdated and colonized modes of thought. The teaching dynamics should not be focused on rote learning as this arguably dulls the mind and supports the status-quo.
  5. Most higher education buildings in the public sector will need to have their infrastructure upgraded. Academic freedom of faculty in the public sector should be protected and ensured and sufficient financial resources should be utilized for the increase of teacher’s salaries. Research should be geared towards economic and socio-political development and evolution and scientific research needs to be cutting-edge, keeping abreast with latest developments in metaphysics, digital technologies and epi-genetics.
  6. The dramatic rise of Islam 14 centuries ago can be correlated with the instrumental teachings of Prophet Muhammad (s) and his exceptionally refined disposition. His lessons resulted in the metamorphosis of a group of unruly and uncivilized nomads, instilling in them the highest ideals and values. In the process they acquired wisdom, knowledge, spiritual enrichment and elevation. This positive change also caused them to gain temporal power and influence, becoming leaders in the world for a thousand years. It is arguably the demise of good character among Muslims today which is a reason for their current wretched state. Keeping this in view, the nation should develop a system that incorporates character-building lessons based on sublime values and universal humanitarian laws. The building up of good character and morality should be taken up as a responsibility of the state and the schooling system should be the means by which good behavior is cultivated in citizens from a young age.
  7. Today’s knowledge economies require workers to be increasingly flexible and dynamic. This means to think of learning as a life-long process. The lifelong education conception has been popularized by UNESCO and The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), though with differing objectives. The European Union defines lifelong learning as ‘all purposeful learning activity, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence’. Higher Education can focus on developing more Continuous Professional Education (CPE) programs that contribute to the continual evolution of applied knowledge and practice.
  8. Citizens at the district level should be more involved and give regular feedback to policy makers regarding the public education system. An online rating mechanism should be developed where parents and students can engage with policy makers and apprise them of their concerns. This would not be possible to implement in very poor rural areas and so each district should set up ‘Education Councils’ comprised of learned men that must protect education standards and seek to ensure superior learning outcomes through a dedicated monitoring and evaluation process . This must be in accordance with the standards, norms and expected outcomes decided by the central government.
  9. There should be a strong focus on youth development programs as part of long-term national strategy to enhance livelihood skills.
  10. Successful private sector and non-governmental programs in the rural sector aimed at alleviating poverty through human resource development should be scaled up. Successes could be applied more comprehensively and on a larger scale. Skill development that leads to self-sufficiency is the kind of education that empowers inter-generationally.
  11. The overarching standards, norms and expected outcomes should ultimately be set by the central government as a national policy. This would help ensure cohesion and unity among citizens of Pakistan.
  12. Countries that made their economic base stronger spent more heavily on primary and secondary education. Pakistan needs to do the same by allocating more finances for this purpose. To prevent misappropriation and poor implementation, a standardized monitoring and evaluation process should be established and incorporated across the country down to the district level to ensure that the desired educational outputs, outcomes and impacts are achieved.

According to UNICEF around 4 million orphans are living in Pakistan. Provincial governments and international organizations currently work for providing shelter to them but only 10% of them are adequately protected and they are mostly residing in Madarasahs. If a universal high quality education standard is to be established, the most vulnerable section of society, i.e. the orphans, should be given the same privilege and opportunity. This would lead to a more just and equitable society.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.