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 4)


Drawing on my Ph.D. thesis, I have written a series of blogs on the challenges of access to quality education for young Pakistani. In blog 1, I provided a brief introduction to Pakistan’s emergence 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 displacement, a lack of parental support, and the digital divide contributed to young people’s poor education performance. In blog 3, I explained how the fragmentation of the three different education systems (public education system, private schooling system, and madrassa system) impacted young Pakistani’s access to quality education. This blog further discusses how the fragmented education system produces graduates with varying sets of skills, knowledge, political and religious orientations, and their implications for access to quality education.

Fragmented Schooling Systems in Pakistan.

The different schooling systems, including the division of public and private schools, are a

global phenomenon. For example, countries in South Asia have private and public schools. Some of these private schools received funding from the World Bank. Given the public sector’s capacity, private schools contribute to all the major sectors in Pakistan. However, improving the quality of education provided in the state-run schools will contribute towards improving the quality of life of the general populace and lessen the impact of fragmented schooling on creating social inequities. This requires the state’s intervention aimed at improving the quality of education in the public education sector. Quality education drawing on UNICEF’s definitions can be understood as learning processes facilitated/conducted in a safe and enabling environment, through trained and well-qualified teachers, and with the help of content that is meaningful and relevant to the experience of the child. This also means that the educion policies and processes take into consideration knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

The different schooling systems have implications for access to quality education. This is because these education/schooling systems produce and reproduce different subjectivities and play a role in producing/effecting power-relations in society. The different education systems in Pakistan have different histories, origins, and different purposes/ideologies. As a result, they produce graduates with varying outlooks about the world and individual’s place in it.


The three schooling systems are based on different educational discourses. They strive for producing different truth-claims, knowledge and skills. These discourses inform the perception and conduct of the individuals, which in turn reproduces these discourses.


Public Schools: Producing Factory Model School students

Issues of educational quality with regard to the public schools are at the heart of this fragmented

education system and its implication for broader society. A report based on data from rural areas of Pakistan, published by a citizen-led initiative called Annual Status of Education (ASER) in 2019, found that around 9% of grade 5 students in the public schools could not read, only 27% of grade 5 students could read sentence, and 41% of grade 5 students could not read a story from a Grade 2 textbook. This is despite the fact that the public schools put a heavy emphasis on reading and memorisation of the textbook content.  

A related challenge and a key factor with regard to issues of educational quality are the examination-centric public schooling system. Pakistani educational practices in public schools are examination-centric, where examinations and assessments inform classroom practice. At the same time, attitudes, skills, and dispositions are not appropriately covered. In such a context, private tutorial assistance is available to those students who can afford to pay. Many parents hire tutors to help their children in mastering the content of the texts. These tutors provide academic assistance to the students in after-school hours. This tutorial assistance gives these students an edge over other students who cannot afford to hire a private tutor.

The Pakistani public school system has its origin in the British colonialism of South Asia. The colonial masters wanted an education system for the local people to produce low-grade officials to work in offices, often designated as clerks. A clerical job requires listening to the instructions and carrying out the specific-assigned duty following routinised system.This education system is suited for industrial era; as it emphasises on memorisation of a chunk of information, ability to do a routinised job, and often unquestioned submission to authority. The 21st century education, instead of memorisation of information, aims to promote questioning, striving to find creative alternatives for day to day problem, and thus challenging established authorities (of ideas and people).

A public school classroom teacher in progress. Credit

This unquestioned acceptance of the text is aimed at producing an obedient subject. But it compromises on other important skills such as questioning, looking for an alternative perspective and engaging with difference. As a result, this system has implications for engaging with diversity. The emphasis on a single perspective at the cost of others is likely to instil a feeling in the student about diversity being abnormal and in need of correction. The intolerance towards being different and thinking different is a manifestation of this emphasis on unification and singular perspective.

A Private school classroom. Credit

Private Schools: Producing the English Speaking Subjects

To what extent the elite private schools strive to cultivate skills related to critical thinking and innovation is a matter of question. However, the emphasis on learning English language skills gives an elevated status to these elite private schools. The low quality of public schools, coupled with the private school’s emphasis on the English language, maintains elite public schools’ educational hegemony in Pakistan. In doing so, this fragmented system contributes towards maintaining the socio-political hegemony of the alumni of these elite private schools. In this way, education becomes a tool to exercise power and effect power-relations.


These private schools have got a role in conserving aspects of the Western lifestyle in Pakistan. In doing so, they socialise selected Pakistani youth in such a lifestyle and reproduce Western cultural elements. In this way, they are the sites where Pakistan’s economic, political and bureaucratic elites are produced and reproduced. Ironically, these elites-private school graduate elites decided why public schools should be different from elite private schools. The elite private schools help in maintaining the status quo and maintain hierarchical relationships by confining these privileges to the few. In doing so, they become a site and tool of effecting power-relations. They also reproduce and strengthen the neoliberal notions of financial-ability-driven access to better education.

This is an add for selling a school in Pakistan. The ad in Urdu reads: “Iqra School, with students and furniture, for sale.” Credit: Facebook

Madrassa: Producing-sect-specific religious subjectivities

The madaris (plural of madrassa) are a bastion of religious conservatism. These aim to provide religious education, preserve religious literature, curriculum, and traditional pedagogies. The keyword in this sentence is tradition/traditional. This word rightly captures madrassa’s priority, its graduates’ social outlook and its vision for society. In other words, the madrassa aims to produce identities based on a particular interpretation of religious texts and tradition and by preserving a particular form of lifestyle. It is noteworthy that through these students, madrassa aim to reconstitute society on religious-sectarian lines. Madrassa becomes a site of a reproduction of sectarian-content-based religious identities, gender segregation, traditional cultural norms and practices. In doing so, the madrassa envisions a dual role for their students: First, they aim to discipline these students through the appropriation of a particular understanding of religious tradition and by transforming their own public lives and attitudes in keeping with that understanding. Second, these students become mediums/agents/ of transforming the entire society into a particular interpretation and practice. In doing so, the madrassa becomes a disciplinary exercise and a tool of governmentality. The madrassa also become a site of an ambivalent relationship with the modern. For example, madaris present themselves an alternative to modern secular education, at the same time through the state, madrassa have obtained the right to get an equivalence for their own highest degree as Masters in Arts in Islamic Studies awarded by the universities in Pakistan.

A Madrassa classroom. Credit

In South Asia, the tensions between madrassa and secular educational institutions can be traced to the colonial era. However, overall, the tensions between the two systems are much older than the colonial era. This is reflected by a number of Muslim theologians delivering religious-legal edicts (fatwa) against studying the secular sciences (including mathematics and philosophy). For example, an Indian Muslim theologian Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) issued a fatwa (religious-legal edict) declaring the study of mathematics and secular sciences “to be forbidden” (haram). Shah Waliullah Dehalvi, another influential Muslim theologian, played one of the key roles in popularising and consolidating the manqulat tradition (transmitted/religious sciences) through his madrassa called Rahimia.

Historically speaking, the madaris have a tradition of over a thousand years, though its contemporary form changed over time. The madaris in South Asia were particularly transformed during the colonial era when they borrowed the administrative structures, the concept of a fixed curriculum, centralised control, and emphasis on examinations from secular-colonial education. The madaris, however, retained their traditional Muslim content of learning.


In this blog, I discussed how the three education/schooling systems in Pakistan produce different subjects. In doing so, I argued that because of the different historical trajectories of these systems and their different ideological orientations, the graduates of these schooling systems have tremendously different views of the world and society. In the next blog, I conclude this blog series. In doing so, I discuss the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relevance for addressing Pakistan’s challenges of access to quality education

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 3)

Introduction: Public, Private, Madrassa: Pakistan’s Fragmented Education System

This is part 3 of a series of blogs on the significant challenges in Pakistani education systems that are evidenced by that fact that more than 22 million young people of school-age do not attend school. In blog 1, I introduced Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state, while in blog 2, I discussed the challenges of access to education in Pakistan with reference to out-of-school children. In this blog, I discuss the fragmented education system in Pakistan. In doing so, I discuss the public education system, private schooling system and madrassa system to identify the impact this fragmentation has on the ability of all young Pakistani peoples to access quality education.

A teacher, Arif Hussain, with his students, outside a school building in an open space. The majestic beauty of the landscape deludes the observers about the hard living conditions the residents face.

Public-Schooling systems: Education for the Masses

Pakistan has three major schooling systems with stark gender, urban-rural, class and financial divide. The first of these three schooling systems is the public schools, which are state-run schools and follow government curriculum as well as the government prescribed textbooks by the provincial textbook boards. The data for 2017-18 indicates that there are around 225,100 public schools in Pakistan (see Figure 2) for grade 1 to grade 12. The total number of students enrolled in public schools is 53,850,000 (see Figure 3). As a result, each public school has an average of 141 students (see Figure 10). 

Public Schools. Data Source

The Federal Government develops the curriculum for these schools. This is despite, education being a provincial subject under the  18th amendment to the constitution in 2010, yet none of the provinces have developed their own educational curriculum. The provinces are still using the education curriculum of 2006, developed by the curriculum wing of Pakistan’s Federal Ministry of Education. Currently, Pakistan’s Federal Government is working on developing a single curriculum called Single National Curriculum (SNC), which I briefly discuss later in this blog. Based on the curriculum, the provincial textbooks board write textbooks involving content-experts. The experts who develop the curriculum and textbooks, usually, do not teach in schools, though some of them teach in colleges and universities. These officially written, printed, and disseminated textbooks are the sole resources for teachers and students at school levels in the context of public schools.

Number of students in public schools system. Data Source

There are 1,636,100 teachers in public sector schools (see Figure 5). Each school has an average of 6 teachers (see Figure 10), while there is one teacher for every 22 students (see Figure 10). Public school teachers are full-time government employees with handsome salaries, job security and post-retirement benefits. As the government employees, they also work as polling-officers during national, provincial or municipal elections.

Islamabad model school. Credit

Government teachers work as enumerators during population censuses and perform some other tasks, not directly related to schools. Throughout their career, many teachers also get training and professional development opportunities. Overall, most of the teachers are trained and qualified. In other instances, many public-school teachers are recruited without due regard for merit, qualification and training. In some cases, the appointments are politically motivated. The teaching practices in public schools are driven by assessment; teachers transmit knowledge from the textbooks and students memorise part of the content to reproduce in the examinations. These assessment-centric teaching practices result in focusing on the textbook content. The teaching and learning processes in the low-fee private schools (discussed later in this blog) are also similar in terms of teaching and learning practices. Still, their emphasis on learning English language skills makes them an attraction for many Pakistani parents and students. As a result, most of the teachers who teach in public schools, send their children to private schools, which is a tacit acknowledgement of the importance to English in the Pakistani education system.

Number of teachers in the public school system. Data Source

Private schools: institutionalising the privileges of English language

The second type of educational institution is private schools. The website of the association of Pakistan’s private schools called All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) indicates there are 197,000 private schools in Pakistan. Private schools are established and run by individuals, groups of peoples or institutions, in most cases, for entrepreneurial purposes. Private schools follow different curricula systems and cater to the needs of different constituencies in society. Based on fees, curricula and institutional affiliation, there are different private schools, but we can broadly group them together into four categories.

Public and private schools in a glance.

The first category consists of those private schools which, despite substantial internal variations, can be bracketed together as low-fee private schools. These schools charge minimal fees which enable many parents to send their children to these schools. These low fee schools are the most numerous of all private schools and exist throughout the country. Most of the low-fee private schools follow the government curriculum, and some even teach government-printed textbooks. Whereas, others teach private organisations’ textbooks of the government curriculum or a combination of both. For example, many low-fee private schools teach the textbooks developed and printed by Oxford University Press (OUP) in Pakistan. Though OUP is a private entity in Pakistan, it develops textbooks based on the Pakistani curriculum, which many schools teach. Some private schools choose different textbooks or content from the different textbook boards as well as from private publishers. However, private schools which are affiliated with the public examination boards for Grades 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and12 examination, teach the Pakistani curriculum. Majority of the low-fee private schools are affiliated with Federal or Provincial examination boards in Pakistan.

These low-fee private schools use English language as a medium of instruction. This emphasis on the English language makes these low-fee private schools a priority of middle-class families, who cannot send their children to the elite private schools for financial reasons.

Second, some government institutions and departments, i.e., armed forces, also establish, own and run private schools. The government subsidises these private schools of these government institutions. These schools provide low-fee education to the children of the employees of the affiliated institutions/departments and charge a full fee from others. The network of cadet schools and colleges of the armed forces are an example.

Pak-Turk Schools. Credit

Third, another category of the private schooling system is collectively called the elite private schools. These schools are elite in the sense they charge a very high fee, which, only the financial upper class can afford to pay. As a result, they are often located in the affluent areas of urban centres. To differentiate them from other private schools, and for lack of a better term, we may call them elite private schools. These schools follow Cambridge University’s curriculum for General Certificate of Education (GCE) and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), also called the Ordinary Level (O-level) and Advanced Level (A-level). Britain-based institutions take the examinations for these schools. Like the private schools of government institutions, these elite private schools consist of a chain and network of schools. 

The fourth category of private schools called Islami schools were established in, mostly, Karachi. These schools combined aspects of secular and religious education by combining O-level and A-level schooling along with components of madrassa education.

Private school teachers are not well-paid. Many of these schools hire graduates without any teaching experience or teacher training. Most private school teachers are those who are either in the process of applying or going for other better-paid jobs or relatively secure government jobs. As many private schools do not have a system of teachers training, so the teachers are never adequately trained. The private schools run under the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) are an exception; they have a robust teacher professional development programme. AKESP teachers receive ample opportunities for ongoing workplace professional development. Many of their teachers get a professional qualification from the prestigious Aga Khan University-Institute of Education Development (AKU-IED). The schools run by the AKESP, despite being private institutions, also stand out because their operations do not depend on the fee charged from students. Instead, community contributions, in different forms, contribute to the sustenance of these schools. This organisational and community support enables AKESP to provide quality education to the most neglected communities with limited fee (see Mir Shah). A key factor of quality in some of the AKES schools is their affiliation with the Aga Khan Examination Board, which has introduced a high-quality examination system in relation to the government curriculum and matriculation system.

Madrassa: Private religious schools

The third type of schooling is the madrassa (religious seminaries). These madaris (plural of madrassa) follow a scheme of religious education called Dars-e-Nizami, which Mulla Nizamuddin (d. 1748) had developed in 18th century South Asia, based on even older models of Muslim learning traditions. The madaris provide free education; many also offer free boarding and food to their students. The madaris based on their sectarian orientations are affiliated with any of the five madrassa boards:

  1. Wifaqul Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan: This is the board with which the Deobandi madaris are affiliated, which are most numerous of all madrassa.
  2. Tanzeemul Madaris-e- Ahl-e-Sunnat, Pakistan. The Barelvi Madrassa are affiliated with this board.
  3. Wafaq ul Madaris al-Salafiya. The Salafi madrassa are affiliated with this board.
  4. Rabitatul Madaris. The madaris belonging to Jamat-e-Islami are affiliated with this board.  
  5. Wafaqul Madari Al-Shia Pakistan. The madaris belonging to Ithna Ashari Shi’ites are affiliated with this board.
Deobandi Madrassa in Pakistan. Data source

The madrassa boards are non-government institutions which decide the madrassa curriculum for their affiliated madrassa, conduct examinations and issue degrees/certificates to the graduates of their respective madaris. The numbers of madaris in Pakistan have been estimated to be around 32,000 to 60,000, with an estimated number of students to be around 2.5 million. The website of Wifaqul Madaris al-Arabia Pakistan, which is the board of Deobandi madrassa claims to have 21,565 madrassa affiliated with it (see Figure 8). The confusion with regard to the number of madrassa and its students arises because of the mode of enrolment and education. There are madaris where students are full-time enrolled and who also board in its hostels, these students do not attend any other schools except madrassa. Another type of madrassa is one where students attend in the after-school hours. This is because the same students attend public or private schools in the first half of the day and attend madrassa in the second half. There are some madaris, which work on weekends. Some madaris consist of large complexes, others modest buildings, while some use mosque premises as a madrassa. Some graduates of madrassa, particularly females, convene madrassa classes in their own homes, which some students of the neighbourhood attend.

Entrance to Jamia Darul Ulum Karachi complex. Credit

Like the elite private schools, the madaris are independent of the government influences concerning the administration, curriculum, policy-making, and examination. The advocates of madrassa education consider these madaris the custodians of traditional religious knowledge and have consistently resisted government influence and modernisation efforts.

Student teacher and school ratio
A school building constructed in 1889 in Rawalpindi is still in use. Credit

This ‘fragmented’ education system is a complex outcome of Pakistan’s precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories and legacies. These legacies have significant consequences for ‘development’ more broadly, and for delivering on the ‘promise’ of quality education for all. In the next blog, I will discuss the impact of this fragmented education system on the ability of many young Pakistanis’ to access quality education.

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.

SDGs and Pakistan

Why can’t 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 1)


Over the next few months – drawing on my ongoing PhD research project – I will write a series of blogs on the challenges of access to quality education for all young people in Pakistan, and the role of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in providing a framework for action in relation to these challenges.

The blog series is informed by my PhD research project, which engages with issues of cultural politics of education curriculum, pluralism, inclusion and the relevance of the SDGs, using postcolonial theory. My thesis, titled The Cultural Politics of Curriculum in Pakistan: The challenges for pluralism, inclusion and the UN SDGs in a Postcolonial context uses the SDGs as a global framework. The significance of this investigation stems from the complex manifestations and outcomes of religious-sectarian, fundamentalist, violent extremism and intolerance, which have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people over the last 2 decades in Pakistan. Through an engagement with the ‘cultural politics’ of education curriculum, the research project seeks to explore the possibilities of reshaping the cultural politics of education curriculum towards the goals of pluralism and inclusion in Pakistani society.

In part 1 of this blog series, I provide a brief introduction to the emergence of Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state and refer to some of the challenges which played an important role in determining the future course of its history with regard to development and education.

Pakistan and the challenges for sustainable development in a postcolonial nation-state

Pakistan is a postcolonial nation-state in South Asia. With a population of 214 million people, others estimate it around 222 million, Pakistan is the 5th largest country in the world in terms of population. Before it emerged as a postcolonial nation-state on 14th August 1947, the regions constituting Pakistan were part of the British colonial-India. The British colonial occupation transformed the South Asian societies by replacing the traditional systems of governance, institutions, education systems and practices, and various modes of political association. It is in this sense that we can say that many of Pakistan’s current problems of development and education have colonial strings attached to it. 

Pakistan’s Map. Image credit

Though heir to some of the greatest ancient human civilisations including those of the Indus Valley and Gandhara, Pakistan is a young nation-state. Since its independence in 1947, it has been facing a number of key challenges. These challenges, outlined below, have played a role in determining the course of Pakistan’s history, society, education and development.

Celebrate diversity. Image credit

One of the major challenges is geography. In 1947, Pakistan consisted of two exclaves called East and West Pakistan. Both were separated from each other by more than 1000 miles of Indian territory. All federating units consisting of the provinces and princely states which joined Pakistan in 1947 had different languages, cultures, and some even had vastly different courses of histories. This created the challenge of articulating a national identity that would reflect the unity of the nation while encompassing the hugely diverse society. To respond to this challenge, Pakistan opted for Islam as the foundation of its national identity. Islam, the religion of an overwhelming majority of the country’s population, provided a unifying and bonding element. Over the years this version of the national identity became enshrined in the concept of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’.

The Shrine of a Sufi-Saint, Shah Rukn-e-Alam, in Multan, Pakistan. Many South Asian Muslim highly revere the Sufis. Image Credit

Despite these efforts, throughout its postcolonial history since 1947, Pakistan has faced periods of ethnic, linguistic, and religious-sectarian violence. From the early days, matters related to the issues of official language and political representations created rifts between East and West Pakistan resulting in the ethnic-inspired civil war in 1971, which ended in the separation of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.

More recently, from 2004 to 2018, and in ways that are intimately connected to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the so-called global ‘war-on-terror’, religious-sectarian groups have waged a war against Pakistan, causing the deaths of over 65,000 Pakistanis. Along with these challenges, sectarian violence has continued to haunt the nation from the beginning of its independence and particularly since the 1980s. Armed local sectarian groups, claimed to have global connections, have continuously targeted their sectarian rivals by killing religious leaders, bombing religious gatherings, and damaging properties.

A screenshot of a BBC Video showing people of Waziristan moving out for safety in the face of military operation against the militants. Image credit

Another challenge that Pakistan has been facing is a lack of industrialisation and infrastructure. The regions consisting of Pakistan were at the periphery of both the Mughal and British Empires. Though the British colonial administration did some work in developing a network of irrigation channels in Punjab, most of the Pakistani regions remained devoid of the institutional and industrial facilities during the colonial era. For example, out of 87 technical institutes only 6 were in Pakistan and out of 21 Universities only 3 were in Pakistan (see the proceedings of Pakistan’s first educational conference in Karachi 1947).

Karachi is the commercial and financial hub of the country. Image credit

Pakistan has not done very well in industrial development over its postcolonial history. Economic and technological development remains a distant dream even after 73 years of independence. Resource scarcity and inefficient use of the existing resources can be blamed for Pakistan’s poor economic performance. A simple comparison with Bangladesh reflects this poor economic performance. In 1973 Pakistan’s GDP was over 10 Billion US$, while that of Bangladesh was just 6 Billion US$, Bangladesh’s export were 377 million US$ and Pakistan’s export stood at 760 million US$ in the same period. 2018’s data indicates that Bangladesh’s exports stand at $US35.8 Billion in comparison to Pakistan’s $US24.8 Billion. The Asian Development Bank’s Developmental Outlook for the South Asia region released in 2019, before the outbreak of Covid-19, showed that Pakistan’s economy was expected to perform lower than that of every country in South Asia, including Afghanistan. As a result of this economic crunch, Pakistan has become economically dependent on the Western nations, as it receives aid/loans from the West-based economic institutions and loan/donation from the United States by providing strategic concessions.

Pakistani delegation in talks with IMF and World Bank official for loan/aid. Image credit

Political instability, yet another challenge for Pakistan, has also contributed to the dire developmental performance of the country and poor state of education. Pakistan’s political instability and issues of governance have continued to hamper sustainable economic growth, social development and democratic stability. The military-Generals have ruled the country for 35 years through martial law and have also influenced the democratic governments throughout history. A political culture centred on feudal and tribal values, where people choose their political representatives based on familial, clan and sectarian affiliations, or for personal-material gains instead of merit has contributed to a weak democratic system.

A Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, about the first martial law in 1958. Image credit

The armed forces were granted a prominent place in the national institutional fabric after independence, because of the hostile geopolitical neighbourhood, particularly the tensions with the two of Pakistan’s neighbours, India and Afghanistan. This has diverted the majority of the nation’s resources to defence, instead of development and education. As a result, education and social development initiatives do not find their place on the priority list of any government in Pakistan. The history of spending on social development in Pakistan, including education, reflects this sorry state of the economy. The UNDP’s human development report 2013 indicated that Pakistan’s spending on the social sector was lower than even the poorest African countries i.e., Congo. In 2020, Pakistan’s State Bank admitted that the country was spending very little on the social sector in the context of continuous economic problems.

Charity organisations offer free food during the holy month of Ramazan and on many other occasions. Image credit

Despite all these challenges and many more, the size of the youth population provides Pakistan with an opportunity to steer the country towards development and progress. 64% of Pakistanis, according to the data of 2018, are below the age of 30 years, and 29% of Pakistanis are aged between 15 to 19. However, the education system’s capacity to harness this potential of the young population through provision of access to appropriate knowledge, attitude and relevant skills is doubtful. This is obvious from the more than 22.8 million school-age young people who do not attend school. The corrupt practices, nepotism, undue political interferences in education, and lack of capacity to efficiently use the available resources, make the public education system’s capability to provide access to quality education for all young Pakistanis uncertain. The confinement of quality education to a relatively small, privileged segment of the society, through the network of high-fee elite private schools, works against the possibility of quality education for all.

The major challenges faced by the postcolonial state of Pakistan continue to play a role in determining Pakistan’s future course of history with regard to society, polity, development and education. In the next blog, I will discuss the key challenges that constrain young people in Pakistan in relation to access to education – a situation that currently leaves tens of millions of school-age children out of school.