Education Systems in Pakistan

Spearhead Opinion – 10.09.2018

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Ask anybody in Pakistan what the best way to improve the nation is, and they will either cite their hopes for the country’s large youth population, or suggest that the government should invest in the Education sector. And to some extent they would be right.

Pakistan has one of the largest youth populations in the world, with almost 64% of its citizens under the age of 30, while almost 29% of the total population is between the age brackets of 15 and 29, according to the National Human Development Report (NHDR) of the UNDP. While these figures do represent a positive outcome for the future, it can pose several problems as well, primarily among them the lack of employment opportunities within the country. As jobs become scarce, competition will grow and businesses will keep refining their hiring processes, raising the bar for potential candidates who may end up being judged based on entirely arbitrary elements. Considering the extreme divides amongst the various communities of people living in the country, these judgements may vary significantly, yet, are expected to principally be based on educational backgrounds, as can be seen even today.

In Pakistan, judging somebody on their educational qualifications can prove to be quite complicated, considering the wide gulf amongst the various educational systems in place around the country. There is a marked difference between the Private and the Public sector, and these variances begin at the primary level and continue all the way up to the university level. The separate education systems preferred by various schools can also be conflicting as well, with the local Matric/FSc system vastly different than the British based O/A level system. What is really needed is a uniform system. One that not only matches the quality and effectiveness of other international systems of education, but is also accepting of local ideals and teaching methods; ultimately creating a system that is inclusive and one that does not discriminate based on one’s financial or cultural standing.

Public and Private Sector

‘Education Affairs and Services’ were allocated about 2.4% Pakistan’s total budget of the year 2017/2018. This figure represents the deplorable state of affairs of this essential sector. As a result, public schools across the country are suffering with a lack of investment, infrastructure maintenance, quality teachers and updated text books. Pakistan’s economic woes, coupled with systematic corruption, have rendered the public education sector completely inept at dealing with the large scale demand for education in the country. This has led to over 23 million children being left without basic education within the state, which is the second highest number in the world.

This public school system has also been quite ineffective when it comes to equal opportunity among the rural and urban parts of the country. Only about 10% of girls belonging to the rural areas have access to education, with the number for boys at around 22%, and in comparison these numbers go well above 80% for Urban centers. The conditions of public schools present in the urban areas are also much better than their rural counterparts, and offer classes in both the Urdu and English language. However, having said that, the conditions of public schools still leave much to be desired, especially when compared to the private sector.

Due to the falling standards of the public sector, an increasing number of people opted to send their children to private schools that were growing in popularity all through the eighties and the nineties. Today they dominate the industry, primarily in the Urban areas, and seem to have evolved in to one of the most lucrative businesses in Pakistan. The success of private schools is based on several factors, chief among them the failing standards of the public sector. In addition, globalization and the rising demand for English medium schools also added to their popularity. So too did the introduction of western systems of education, which were expected to give students a leg-up in an increasingly globalized world.

It is worth noting however, that, while private schools do offer a lot, they can prove to be quite expensive for the average Pakistani. This is why most of them can be found in and around urban centers, as only a very small minority of people living in the rural areas can ever hope to send their children to a private school. School fees can also vary greatly in the private sector as well, and can rise depending on the provision of various luxuries, like air conditioners, swimming pools, world class sports facilities, international affiliations and locality etc. 

Parallel Education Systems

While the divides that exist between the Private and Public sectors adversely affect the education sector in the country, the presence of several different educational systems has also been a source for debate and strife within the country.

The local education system or the Matric/Fsc system is considered archaic and in desperate need of upgradation. The curriculum is outdated and at times, very basic, with not enough focus on critical thinking and problem solving. On the other hand, the British O/A level system is said to cultivate these traits far better and promotes a more logic based and practical learning style than the local system. The American system has also been introduced by some institutions in recent years, and instead of end of year exams, they instead determine final grades based on the Grade Point Average (GPA), which takes in to account a child’s performance in their class tests, work assignments, homework, extracurricular activities and class participation etc.

One of the major differences between the various education systems is their preference for Urdu or English. The major shift towards the private sector and international education systems was primarily driven by the need for curriculums based in English, rather than Urdu, as preferred in the local system of education. While a need for greater emphasis on English is understandable, in light of globalization, it has had an adverse effect on the development and progress of the Urdu language, as well as other local languages, particularly Punjabi. The added focus on English has pushed these languages in to the background, and not enough is being done to preserve them for future generations.

Religious Seminaries and Schools     

During the seventies, many Shia scholars from Iran travelled to Pakistan and set up religious ‘madrassas’ or seminaries around the country, in order to provide children with an education based on the teachings of Islam. Later, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, other sects followed this example and set up their own schools, eventually leading to the creation of hundreds of Wahabi backed religious institutions that would go on to become centers for cultivating anti-west propaganda in the entire region.

Today there are thousands of such seminaries around the country, catering to millions of students that receive an education based on Islamic teachings. Students are taught to memorize the Holy Quran, and learn about the history of Islam, and its basic principles. Since these schools are mostly based on contributions from other Muslim states and powerful Islamic leaders, the majority of them do not charge any fees for their services, and may even provide food, and lodging for their students as well. This makes them a very attractive option for people from low income groups.  

However, while it is commendable that so many religious seminaries are operating on a welfare model, and provide all their resources for free, their influence over their students allows them to mold their minds according to the principals they see fit. Their education is completely based on religion, with an absolute disregard for other essential subjects like science or math, while creative thinking and individualism are frowned upon, with conformity the only acceptable outcome. Such practices have given rise to many schools that were used to breed a new generation of extremists, which has led to the worsening security environment in Pakistan.

It is estimated that anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 madrassas are operating in the country today, yet this number cannot be confirmed due to the inability of the provinces to register each seminary within their jurisdiction. It was the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) who formed a uniform registration and data form so that provincial governments could register madrassas, and keep a check on their activities and the teachings being promoted at each, so as to put a stop to the rising number of extremist elements being bred there. With the exception of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities to an extent, no other province has done much in this regard.


The current state of education in Pakistan is disappointing to say the least. The divides between the private and public sector seem overwhelming, and are in turn influencing the way average citizens perceive each other. Furthermore, the difference between graduates of English medium schools, and Urdu medium schools are stark, and in time, are sure to be a matter of concertation, especially when it comes to employment opportunities.

The cracks are already becoming visible. This can be seen with the recent moves to make the Civil Service exams Urdu based, or the decision by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) regarding students that studied under international education systems. All high school and O/A level graduates are now required to get an equivalence certificate that converts their results in accordance with Matric/FSc system. Such acts will only multiply as time goes on, and it is imperative that the government takes decisive action against them.

For that, they need to take a comprehensive look at the current education structure in place and come up with possible solutions. At the moment, the best answer seems to be a complete revamp of the local education system, in order to bring it into line with other prominent international education systems, by not only updating the syllabus and curriculum, but also by inculcating teaching methods that promote creativity, self-reliance, and critical thinking. Perhaps if the local education system is improved, people might not find the need to look for alternates, and a semblance of uniformity can hence be introduced within our educated community.