The data mostly comes from the last detailed government report on the state of education in Pakistan. Was published in Pakistan Link.
Since the country was founded, illiteracy and limited access to education has been a hallmark of Pakistani society, and has contributed massively to its slow pace of development. The dramatic success of East Asian Tigers like Taiwan and South Korea and Singapore was built on a foundation of universal primary education that began in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Pakistan, on the other hand, is among the worst performers in South and East Asia, though not quite as bad as Africa. This poor performance has led to a climate of defeatism and despair when it comes to Pakistan’s education system, and this is in fact unwarranted. Pakistan has made huge strides in education at all levels, and its failure to achieve 100% literacy should not obscure the massive expansion of education that has occurred and is continuing.
For perspective, West Pakistan in 1947 had about 35 million people, but less than a million children were in school. Primary school enrollment rate was only 20%, with 770,000 students, of which only 110,000 were girls. There were 200,000 secondary school students, and only 20,000 were female, and a grand total of 17,000 students were attending any sort of university.
By 1997 primary school enrollment had reached only 65% of students, but that was in the context of a quadrupling of the population and a massive increase in the number of children. The number of primary school-age children rose from under 4 million in 1947 to 20 million in1997. In 1997 there were 15.5 million children in primary school, 6.5 million were girls, and at the university level the numbers were now about 1 million students, with 350,000 girls.
In 2016, the last year for which there is data as no PSLM survey was conducted in 2018 due to the census, there were almost 19 million children in primary schools, over 8 million were girls. Almost 80 times as many girls were attending school as in 1947. At the secondary school level there were 6.5 million students, of which 3 million were girls. University enrollment is now over 3 million students, with several hundred thousand more in vocational schools.
Pakistan’s literacy rate has been rising. Adult literacy as of 2015 was 60%, with youth literacy (age 15-24) up to 72%. These rates have probably ticked up a few points in the last three years, but we will need another PSLM survey to verify that. Male youth literacy has reached 80%. The rise of smart phones and text messaging has made the value of literacy much more immediate, and hopefully this will increase the desire of children to educate themselves when given the opportunity.
There is still a gender disparity in education which extends from primary school all the way to university. At each level boys make up about 56% of the students, which means that there is a significant fraction of girls who are being denied an education. Partly this is because if only one school is being built in a location, it tends to serve boys. But more importantly is the cultural prejudice against the value of educating girls. This is slowly eroding, and in the cities certainly most young men who are literate would like a wife who is also educated. And educated mothers tend to make sure their daughters go to school. This bias is being slowly broken down, but it needs to be fully obliterated. Many NGO’s provide education in more conservative rural areas to girls, and they are doing some great work.
So how close is Pakistan to universal primary school enrollment? Closer than you think. School enrollment numbers are provided using two different metrics, “Net Enrollment Ratio, or NER”, and “Gross Enrollment Ratio or GER”. If primary school age is defined as ages of 5-9 years, then NER is what percent of children in that age group are enrolled in school. But there are many children, especially in Pakistan, who attend primary school at a delayed age. They may start at age 8 and attend to age 13. If we count the total number of students actually in primary school and divide by the number of students in the 5-9 age group, we get the GER. From 2012 to 2016, Pakistan’s NER rose from 68 to 77%, but its GER rose from 86 to 97%. This means that just about all Pakistan children are at some point attending primary school, but not necessarily between the ages of 5-9. NER in 2016 was 83% for boys and 71% for girls, while GER was 105% for males and 90% for females.
Punjab and KP are doing particularly well. Punjab had an NER of 88% for boys and 83% for girls, while GER was over 100% for both. KP had an NER of 95% for boys and 74% for girls, with an amazing GER of 130% for boys (lots of illiterate teenagers are attending primary school) and 95% for girls. Sindh has a GER of 90% for boys but still an abysmally low 70% for girls, which reflects rural Sindh’s cultural bias against female education, paradoxically more intense than what is seen in KP. The statistics for Islamabad look like a First World country, it would be wonderful it that performance could be matched nationwide.
While these enrollment numbers are encouraging at the primary level, quality of education also matters. The habit of both the PPP and PML-N to use teaching jobs as a source of patronage led to widespread ghost schools or teachers with little or no interest or capacity to teach. This problem is being addressed in two ways. First, if families can afford it, they tend to send their children to private schools where they can ensure the teacher is actually showing up and doing something. Second, in Punjab in particular, the government in the last few years has been turning over primary schools to NGO’s to operate, which leads to better performance. Currently 37% of students attend private schools and this number is rising.
Despite the massive increase in education over the last 70 years, there is still a crushing problem of children not in school. If we take as baseline that all children should be in school from age 5 to 16, and receive 12 years of education, then in 2015 there were 22.6 million Pakistani children out of school. At age 5-9, 23% of children are still not in school (5 million out and 17 million in school). At age 10-12, there are 6 million in school and 6 million out, and at age 13-16 there are only 5 million in school and 11 million out. In the youngest age group, 14% of children in Punjab and 15% in KP are out of school.
This lack of schooling reflects the profound underinvestment in education that has hampered Pakistan since its birth. Under Musharraf, education was expanded substantially, and education spending reached 2.7% of GDP in 2008, but then declined to 2.1% under the PPP. PML-N government has raised it back to 2.7%, but this is just making up lost ground. Pakistan should be spending 4% of GDP on education, which it could do if it had the political will. The nation is dramatically undertaxed, and the money is there if the government chooses to mobilize the resources.
While the issue of out-of-school children is still a giant problem, it is getting better. From 2012 to 2016, in the 5-9 age group the number of out-of-school boys has dropped from 3 million to 2 million, and for girls from 4 million to 3 million. In the 10-12-year age group, the drop has been smaller, from 3.2 to 3 million for boys, and from 3.5 to 3.2 million for girls. At age 13-16, the number for boys has fallen from 7 to 5.5 million and for girls from 7 to 5.7 million. GER ratio at the secondary school level meanwhile has risen from 20 to 34%, still a long way to 100%. In the 25-34-year age group, 15% now have some sort of tertiary or university degree.
Another impediment to education is the lack of drinking water, toilet facilities, and electricity in schools. While this is not a problem at the high school level, it remains a problem in some of the provinces at the primary school level. Punjab has done a great job in getting electricity in 90% of primary schools, and water in 100%, but overall the numbers are about 60% for electricity and 70% for water. These basic infrastructure barriers need to be overcome.
While Pakistan’s education system is still woefully inadequate to meet the needs of its 50 million school-age children, it has made huge progress since its miniscule beginnings 70 years ago. A well-educated workforce is critical to making rapid economic growth possible, the key ingredient in creating a modern industrial economy and an affluent society. The rapid population growth Pakistan experienced for decades meant the goalposts were always moving. It was hard to build an adequate education system as the number of children would rise sharply ever year. But in the last 15 years or so, falling fertility rates means that process has nearly halted. The number of babies in Pakistan has stopped growing for the most part, which means that the education system is no longer chasing a moving target. With proper investment, and with a government that does not treat education as a dumping ground for patronage jobs, Pakistan can create a universal system learning that gives its children the tools they will need to succeed.