SDGs and Pakistan

Why can’t over 22.8 million Pakistani Young People Get Access to Quality Education? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their Relevance to the Discourse of Quality Education in Postcolonial Pakistan (Part 2)


This is the second blog in a series of blog posts on some of the challenges faced by Pakistani education and the relevance of the United Nations (US) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for shaping the discourse of education and development. In this blog, I discuss some of the challenges with regard to access to education in Pakistan. This discussion will be framed by the following key themes:

  • the low adult literacy rate,
  • the challenges posed by out of school children and the high dropout rates.

In exploring these challenges of access to education, I refer to issues of poverty and other challenges which hinder access to education.

Colonial legacies and poor educational performance

As I discussed in part one of this blog series, before 1947 Pakistan remained a part of the British colonial empire. Postcolonial Pakistan inherited a British-European model of education through different processes and over time. Over the course of its postcolonial history, Pakistan has changed the content of education by Islamising and localising it. However, it has retained the colonial structure of the education systems, institutions, curricular and pedagogical practices. Pakistan also retained the English language as the official language – which has acted as a means to produce and reproduce  privileges for the upper classes.  

1. Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan was established during the British-Colonial era. Image Credit

Despite the passage of 73 years since independence from the British colonial occupation, Pakistan is systematically performing poorly in the field of education. This includes performing lower than those countries with similar or even lower per capita income. As a result, the Oslo summit on education in 2015 described Pakistan as one of the worst-performing countries in education.

2. Structure of Pakistani education system

One indicator of this poor performance in education is the slow growth in the adult literacy rate and stagnant enrolment. In 1947, adult literacy in Pakistan was just 10%, which currently stands at 62.3%. Zaigham Khan, an anthropologist and developmental professional, claimed in a tv talk show that the actual literacy rate is around 50% and the official figures do not reflect the reality. Even with 63.3%, the average annual growth of adult literacy in Pakistan has been less than 1 percentage point per annum over the last 73 years.

3. Illiterate Adult in Pakistan. Data Source

Data shows (see figure 3) that there are 65.4 million illiterate adults in Pakistan. That means Pakistan’s illiterate population segment exceeds the total population of a number of countries, including, for example, Italy.

Numbers of ‘out of school’ children, and school dropout rates

Various factors contribute to this poor educational performance. One of the major issues facing education in Pakistan is a lack of access to education. The severity of this challenge can be seen in the sheer number of out of school children. There are 22.8 to 25 million children aged 5 to 16 currently out of school in Pakistan (see figure 4). Pakistan’s out of school children constitute 44% of the total age group 5 to 16 years in the country. This means that Pakistan is a country with the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world. It is a member of the E9 countries, whose other member states are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria. The E-9 group represents half of the world’s population and 70% of the world’s illiterate adults. In this group, Pakistan and Nigeria have the lowest literacy rates.

4. Enrolled and out of school children in Pakistan (numbers in millions). Data source

Linked to the challenges of out of school children is the issue of massive school dropout rates. This means that not all those children and young people enrolled in schools complete their school education. The data from 2017 shows that nearly 33% of the total enrolled students at the primary level drop out after grade 5, while the data from 2015 shows that 31% student dropout even before stepping into grade 5. The retention rate across the country at primary level varies significantly. The data for 2016-17 shows that in around 10 districts across Pakistan less than 10% students complete primary level schooling. In Baluchistan and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, over 50% of students dropout of schooling before reaching Grade 5. Only in Gilgit-Baltistan do 100% of enrolled students complete Grade 5. The data from 2015 indicates that 72% of the total enrolled students drop out before completing grade 10 in high school. This dropout rate adds to the challenge of out of school children between the ages of 11 to 16 years. This alarming dropout rate means that Pakistan has the highest school dropout rates in the world. Together with the out of school children, the drop out ratio adds to the issues of educational (in)competence and illiteracy.

5. Image Credit

Poverty and resource scarcity, displacement, parental attitude, and the ‘digital divide’ are among the many factors which contribute to the issues of access to quality education in Pakistan. Here, I discuss some of these factors.

Poverty and lack of government support

Many Pakistan children do not attend schools because they are too marginalised and poor to afford to attend schools. Data from 2015 shows that 46 million people, comprising 24.3% of the Pakistani population live below the poverty line. Over the past two years poverty has increased in Pakistan and 87 million, or 40% of Pakistanis are considered to live in poverty. Many children of school age help their parents in earning income, as a result there are 12.5 million Pakistan children involved in child labour. COVID-19 is likely to further aggravate poverty in Pakistan. In this context, the challenges of access to basic education relate to resource scarcity and the inefficient use of existing resources. Pakistan spends 2.3% of its GDP on education. This is the lowest spending in the region, and indicates that public education has been, and continues to be, low in the government’s priorities. Over 80% of the education budget goes for funding the salaries of the education staff. This leaves limited resources for education-development expenditure and even this small portion of funding is not well utilised.

6. For the last 20 years Muhammad Ayoub has been voluntarily running a free school for the poor out of school children in the open space of a park in Islamabad. Image Credit

Inefficient use of resources and corrupt practices contribute to the resources not being utilised for the vast majority of people. As a result, most Pakistani public schools are devoid of basic facilities. At the same time, some ghost-teachers never come to school but draw salaries, while some bureaucrats draw salaries in the name of teachers who exist on paper only. Other corrupt practices involving politicians and bureaucrats contribute to inept use/misuse of resources.

Militancy, displacement and threat to education

In parts of the country, militancy and violence have impacted students’ access to school education. For example, the nearly two decades of the (so-called) ‘war on terror’ have negatively impacted schooling in Pakistan. In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the militants have blown up several school buildings, depriving the students and communities of school facilities. This included blowing up twelve schools in a single evening of August 2018. Several million people in part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were displaced and moved out of their hometowns for safety, which hampered the schooling of their children. Even when they returned to their hometowns not all children could make it to schools because of security issues, and uncertainty, or the school buildings were not reconstructed. Many militant groups threatened students, particularly female students from going to schools. Despite the government’s claims about overcoming violent militancy, the threat to education is not yet over. As recently as in November 2020, pamphlets attributed to Pakistani Taliban groups were distributed in Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in which girls going to colleges were threatened and asked to quit education. In 2016 schools in the Punjab province were temporarily closed over the threat of Taliban attack.

7. A school building in Pakistan bombed by the militants. Image Credit

Along with militancy, natural disasters have impacted access to quality education. Disasters such as flooding and earthquakes not only destroy school buildings, they compel people to move from their localities, and disrupt schooling and education in the long run. In some situations schools and colleges are turned into places of accommodation for people fleeing from affected areas, which deprives the students of that locality from their school-buildings.

Parents’ attitudes to education and quality of education.

Many parents feel that public school education is not relevant to the needs of their children in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions. As a result, these parents do not send their children to school. Along with these issues of access and deprivation, the quality of public education is a paramount challenge. The Global Competitiveness Index 2019 showed that Pakistan ranks 110 out of 141 countries in terms of global competitiveness. The Index also shows that in South Asia, Pakistan is behind every country, which is a testimony of the poor-quality education and the skills and capabilities developed through it. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Global Human Capital Report 2017 ranked Pakistan 125 out of 130 countries in terms of educational attainment and skills. The issue of educational quality can also be understood in light of the differentiated education system, which I discuss in the next blog.

Covid-19 and Pakistan’s digital divide

The challenges to young people accessing quality education in Pakistan have been amplified due to COVID-19. Many rural students have found the process of switching to online classes difficult because of the lack of access to the internet or computer devices and electricity; a situation reflective of Pakistan’s digital divide. Instead of providing internet access to students, the government turned to a one-way information transmission through television as a medium of education. Even where the internet was available, most school-teachers in the public education sector found it challenging to turn to online teaching.

8. Students from remote rural Pakistan climb the hills to access internet for online classes. Image credit


The government claims to work on providing education to out of school children, but the majority of the current generation of out of school children would certainly step into adulthood without going to school. The stagnant enrolments, and the high dropout ratio do not bode well for any solution to this issue soon. Data of 2018 shows that the Net Enrolment Rate (NER) is 74% in Pakistan, while in Iran, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India the NER is above 95%. With a birth rate of 3.5%, Pakistani society is adding many more children to this group of out of school children and this challenge of providing education to all children in Pakistan will likely continue to wait for a solution.

9. Pakistan’s education policy framework 2018

All this is despite the fact that Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees free basic education. Article 25-A of the Constitution obliges the state to provide free and compulsory quality education to children between 5 to 16 years, while Article 37-B makes the state responsible for the eradication of illiteracy at the earliest. Despite these constitutional provisions, Pakistan continues to have a large section of the child population who do not attend school.

The cursory study of Pakistan’s educational trajectory shows that the country has done well in policy making, but has lagged in policy implementation. Successive Pakistani governments set deadlines for achieving higher literacy rates and proposed solutions. But each time they have missed the deadline and extended it, only for it to be missed again. And this exercise continues. For example, the first educational conference in 1947 set 20 years (thus 1967) for achieving universal primary education. Each of the five year plans, and developmental projects discussed primary education and extended the deadline to achieve the target of 100% universal primary education. But universal primary education is still not in sight for Pakistan in 2020.

To this point I have discussed some of the multi-faceted challenges that determine children’s access to schooling in Pakistan. As a result, around 22.8 million children are out of school, and many more drop out every year. COVID-19 has contributed further to the complexity of the situation for many of Pakistani young people’s access to quality education. In the next blog, I will investigate the differentiated education system in Pakistan in terms of the public, private, madrassa and its implications for the promise of equitable and quality education for all Pakistan’s young people.


By Sher Rahmat Khan

PhD Student at the RMIT School of Education

3 replies on “Why can’t over 22.8 million Pakistani Young People Get Access to Quality Education? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their Relevance to the Discourse of Quality Education in Postcolonial Pakistan (Part 2)”

Pakistan is struggling in educating its youth people who constitute a large portion of the its population. This means a huge number of youth people are growing without education and skills that can pose multiple challenges for the country in the coming years. You study is not only relevant but also timely to explore this important topic. I hope along with exploring the factors it will provide some valuable insights to improve the educational policies and practices in Pakistan.


[…] as a postcolonial nation-state and how this played a role in developing its education system. In blog 2, I discussed how colonial legacies, poverty and a lack of government support, militancy and […]


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