Pakistan’s Education System and Links to Extremism

Pakistan’s Education System and Links to Extremism

Pakistan’s poor public education system has been exploited by extremist groups and slowed the country’s development. Analysts say education reform is an essential element in stabilizing the country.

October 7, 2009 12:28 pm (EST)

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Pakistan’s poor education system has increasingly become a matter of international concern. Lack of access to quality education, which in turn limits economic opportunity, makes young Pakistanis targets for extremist groups, some experts say. The World Bank says nearly half the adult population of Pakistan can’t read, and net primary enrollment rates remain the lowest in South Asia. Experts say the system suffers from inadequate government investment, corruption, lack of institutional capacity, and a poor curriculum that often incites intolerance. In August 2009, chief counterterrorism adviser to the White House John Brennan, summing up a concern held by many U.S. terrorism experts, said extremist groups in Pakistan have exploited this weakness. "It is why they offer free education to impoverished Pakistani children, where they can recruit and indoctrinate the next generation," he said. There have been some efforts by the Pakistani government, Western governments, and the World Bank to reform the system, but serious challenges remain.

A ’Dysfunctional’ System

According to the Pakistani government’s National Education Policy 2009 (PDF), three parallel streams in education--public schools, private schools, and Islamic religious schools, or madrassas--have "created unequal opportunities for students." Of the total number of students going to primary school (grades 1 to 5), 73 percent go to public or government schools, 26 percent to private schools, and less than 1 percent to madrassas, according to the Karachi-based policy research institute Social Policy and Development Center. Within the public and the private sector, there are elite schools catering to a small minority of students. The majority of students attend low-quality private and public schools with poor curriculum, limited teaching materials, and inadequate number of properly trained teachers, or in many cases absent teachers.

"[N]o Pakistani leader has had the courage to implement serious [education] reforms"- Pervez Hoodbhoy

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The government-mandated curriculum is a major concern for Western observers who say it encourages intolerance and a narrow worldview. Except in some elite private schools, which do not follow the government-prescribed curriculum, all public schools and registered private schools have been required to teach Islamiyat, or Islamic studies, for nearly thirty years. In addition to Islamiyat, "many scholars have noted that the government curriculum uses Islam for a wide array of controversial ideological objectives," writes C. Christine Fair in the 2008 book The Madrassah Challenge. A 2003 report on the state of curriculum and textbooks by the Islamabad-based independent Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) said that for over two decades, the curricula and official textbooks in subjects such as English, social studies, civics, and Urdu "have contained material that is directly contrary (PDF) to the goals and values of a progressive, moderate and democratic Pakistan." It says the curriculum and textbooks include hate material and "encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination" toward women, religious minorities, and other nations, especially India. In 2004, Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor and chairman of Islamabad-based Quaid-i-Azam University wrote in Foreign Affairs: "Pakistani schools--and not just madrassas--are churning out fiery zealots, fueled with a passion for jihad and martyrdom." CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey also notes the concern over textbooks. "Rather than actually serving to moderate public views, the education system is exacerbating the problem of extremism," he says.

Interactive Map: Pakistan’s Troubled Tribal Belt The government, in its new national policy, concedes that access at all levels to educational opportunities remains low. Few people educated in public schools are able to move up the ladder of social mobility, it notes. There also remains a gender gap in schools; the net enrollment ratio (PDF) for girls at primary level is 59 percent as compared to 72 percent for boys. At secondary level, girls enroll at 21 percent as compared to 27 percent for boys.

Government Reform Plans

Since the early days of Pakistan’s formation in 1948, "there was an insistence that Islam was to inform the education system," the SDPI report notes. After assuming power in a coup in 1977, military ruler Muhammad Zia ul-Haq made Islamic studies compulsory at all levels of education through college, and declared madrassa certificates equivalent to normal university degrees. Several successive governments made efforts to tackle curriculum reform through new education policies, but Hoodbhoy says "no Pakistani leader has had the courage to implement serious reforms."

The National Education Policy 2009 says Pakistan’s weak education sector results from  a lack of commitment to education and poor implementation of policies. It recognizes pervasive corruption in the system and notes that the government’s current spending on education, 2.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), is far from adequate. The NEP proposes the following policy actions:

  • Increase spending on education to 7 percent of GDP;
  • Increase public-private partnerships;
  • Introduce subjects taught in regular schools in madrassas;
  • Increase teacher training, enact curriculum reform, and improve teaching aid materials;
  • Introduce food-based incentives to increase enrollment and improve retention, especially for girls.

However, some experts remain skeptical of real reform taking place. Markey says the plans on paper may not be translated into action. Hoodbhoy also notes the gap between policy and implementation. He says new textbooks written as a result of curriculum reform in 2002 have not yet been printed. Since then, there have been two more education policies (in 2006 and 2009).  There are also doubts about the government’s ability to spend the allocated money on education. The national education policy notes that 20 percent to 30 percent of all government funds allocated to any sector remain unspent.

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Reforming education in Pakistan’s restive regions, where the government’s writ runs thin, may be even more difficult. According to official data, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), male literacy is 29.5 percent as compared to the national average of 54.8 percent and female literacy is only 3 percent compared to the national average of 32 percent. There are nine colleges which teach the intermediate and degree levels, but they only accept males, notes a 2008 research study (PDF) by a Peshawar-based independent nonprofit organization. This report, based on a survey of 1,050 FATA residents, found that nearly 45 percent of the respondents thought illiteracy was the main factor responsible for the current religious extremism.

The ’Madrassa Myth?’

The 9/11 Commission report (PDF) released in 2004 said some of Pakistan’s religious schools or madrassas served as "incubators for violent extremism." Since then, there has been much debate over madrassas and their connection to militancy.

For almost one thousand years, madrassas have been centers of Islamic learning that produce the next generation of Islamic scholars and clerics. In Pakistan in the 1980s they underwent a complete change under Zia’s Islamization efforts, but it was Pakistan’s leading role in the anti-Soviet campaign in neighboring Afghanistan during this time that radicalized some of these madrassas. New madrassas sprouted, funded and supported by Saudi Arabia and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, where students were encouraged to join the Afghan resistance. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and reports that many of the group’s leaders were educated in Pakistan’s madrassas, fueled concern regarding these schools.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan Actual numbers of madrassas in Pakistan remain a point of contention among scholars. Several recent reports have suggested that earlier reports exaggerated their numbers. A 2005 World Bank study looking at religious school enrollment in madrassas (PDF) found they comprise a very small share of the full-time education market, as low as 1 percent. Even in the Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan where they are most popular, the study says madrassa enrollment is less than 7.5 percent. Experts say there is no credible information for the number of unregistered madrassas, but estimates of registered madrassas range from ten thousand to twenty thousand. Some experts have also challenged assumptions of these schools as major militant hubs. One of them, Fair, writes in her book The Madrassah Challenge, that the madrassa market share has remained stable or even declined somewhat since 1991.  She cites studies which disagree about the direct ties between madrassas and militancy. However, she admits even if few militants come from madrassas, they are still a matter of concern as they possibly produce students who are more likely than students in mainstream schools to support militancy.

There has also been concern that madrassas in Pakistan’s tribal areas provide suicide attackers in Afghanistan. A 2007 report (PDF) by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that suicide attackers in Afghanistan "draw heavily from madrassas across the border in Pakistan." The report noted the recruits were also drawn from Afghan refugees settled in Pakistan. Analysts also point to the role of madrassas in sectarian conflict. Madrassas, Fair says, were founded on sectarian lines and their primary objective is to produce students and religious scholars capable of defending the virtues of a particular school of thought.

Reforming Madrassas

There have been some measures by recent Pakistani governments to reform madrassas, but they have had little success so far, experts say. In 2001, former President Pervez Musharraf promulgated the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board Ordinance to establish three model madrassas that would include regular school subjects such as English, math, and computer science in their curricula. In 2002, he followed up with a Voluntary Registration and Regulation Ordinance that promised funding to madrassas that formally registered with the government. The current government led by President Asif Ali Zardari also vowed to review madrassa curriculum. Yet only five hundred madrassas (Dawn) have reportedly accepted curriculum reform since 2002.

Eliminate the madrassas that are used for training and recruiting militants, but the solution is really in creating alternatives to madrassas through public or private schools that deliver better quality education - Daniel Markey

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Some experts advise against madrassa reform. CFR’s Markey says "madrassas have never been intended to be more than seminaries and to violate that tradition in the name of an education program seems to be misplaced." He promotes the elimination of madrassas used for training and recruiting militants, but says that the solution is really in creating alternatives to madrassas through public or private schools that deliver better quality education. However, others disagree. Saleem H. Ali, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, argues for curriculum reform at madrassas as well as international support for such programs. For instance, he says indirect U.S. support "could be offered through capacity-building programs for teachers across all sectors, including madrassas." The Washington-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, which has been working with some Pakistani madrassas since 2004 training their leaders and faculty in religious tolerance and human rights, says reform of these madrassas is possible.  Douglas M. Johnston, the organization’s president, urges USAID and international donor support for madrassa reform, saying: "To prevent Pakistan’s slide toward a failed nuclear state, broad educational enhancement of the madrassas will be essential."

U.S. Policy Implications

Since 2002, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested over $682 million to reform Pakistan’s education system. In September 2009, the U.S. Congress approved a new bill authorizing $1.5 billion a year in nonmilitary aid for the next five years starting in 2010. While the bill does not earmark a specific amount for education, it is authorized to provide assistance in educational reform including programs for "development of modern, nationwide school curriculums for public, private, and religious schools" and "support for the oversight of all educational institutions, including religious schools."

However, concerns remain in how best to disburse the aid money for maximum impact. Some experts say a large portion of development assistance is spent on international consultants and overhead costs. Most worry that the Pakistani government, with its poor record on transparency and distribution of aid, is an ineffective partner. Lack of coordination between the central government and the local authorities who are in charge of implementing educational reforms adds to the problem. CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman says international donors must work with local partners to assist in educational reform.

An increasing number of experts point to the growth of low-cost private schools that are generally more efficient than public schools and recommend boosting the private sector to help reform the system. Public-private partnership models are also recommended. Fair says understanding parental choice is critical for any meaningful educational reform. She writes many parents opt out of the educational market rather than send their children to madrassas for full-time instruction. Factors such as physical distance to schools and presence of female teachers are usually considered an important determinant for girls’ education. In other cases, stipends can help to encourage parents to send their children to school when incentives other than quality of education are a determinant in enrollment. There are already some ongoing efforts in this regard. The World Bank started a program in 2003 of paying a stipend to families to ensure they send their daughters to school. Other institutions like Canadian nonprofit International Development and Relief Foundation have also partnered with nongovernmental organizations such as the Zindagi Trust to set up programs to encourage education among working children by paying them stipends as a supplement to their daily wages.


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