Policy Dialogue: Pakistan’s Complex Education Landscape

Tahir Andrabi standing in front of a PowerPoint slide

Pakistan has witnessed frenetic education reforms in the last couple of decades, marking particular progress in enrolment. However, Pakistan continues to have 22.5 million out-of-school children and those who do go to school often do not achieve even the basic levels of learning (ASER Pakistan 2018). To problem-solve these and other gaps in learning and access, the government of Pakistan has proposed an implementation of a uniform education policy across the country.

The policy for uniformity is predicated on the notion of equality of opportunity: quality education for every child, irrespective of socioeconomic background, will produce equal opportunities to eradicate economic disparity. This intention behind the policy for uniformity is most definitely laudable, especially due to its recognition of unequal access to quality education and socioeconomic inequality within Pakistan. However, the case for its effective implementation is rather perplexing.

Irrespective of the conceptualisation and formulation of the policy, the severely diverse and complex context of the education landscape in Pakistan does not paint a promising picture for uniformity. Can one curriculum, assessment and medium of instruction be effectively enforced for 200 million residents of Pakistan, speaking more than 70 languages? And if so, can it repair the system that previously resisted hundreds of corrective reforms from various governments in power?

Against this backdrop of growing speculation, the RISE Pakistan Country Research Team at the Centre for Economic Research (CERP) and the School of Education at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) jointly organised a policy roundtable titled ‘Uniformity, Diversity & Equity in Pakistan’s Complex Education Landscape’. Academics, policy partners, and stakeholders came together to deliberate on why, whether, and how to achieve an equitable uniform system of education, given the complexities rooted in the education space of Pakistan. The complexities were identified as embedded in the various education providers emerging in the education space, such as private school chains, low-cost private schools, schools for special needs, madrasahs, tuitions, academies plus slow-paced growth of government schools, along with the growing demand for education for upward economic and social mobility and increasing urbanisation across Pakistan.

Participants deliberated the sustainability of one language as the medium of instruction given the multiplicity of languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan. The demand for English as an official language and as an indication of the elite was considered consequential considering imminent resistance from parents and respective schooling systems. Similarly, effectiveness of a single curriculum and assessment was thought questionable given existing differences in the dissemination of course content with respect to variations in quality of teaching and infrastructure across regions and schooling systems. Conclusively, introducing one language, one curriculum, and one assessment was therefore understood as camouflaging differences instead of removing educational inequity.

The recommendations emerging out of the discussions at the conference appear to be two-pronged. First, as the government moves forward in formulating the policy, they must invest in and learn from good quality research on education ecosystems in Pakistan. They should encourage debate backed by evidence from research on previous and potential reforms, on other countries with experience of a uniform system, and from surveys on preferences of schools, students and parents as the main recipients of the policy. By producing evidence-based reforms, the policy will target more effectively the problem areas while saving critical time and resources, as opposed to prescribing reforms blindly based on prior assumptions of the select policymakers.


This article originally featured on the CERP website on 6 May 2019 and has been cross-posted with permission.