Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) has many plus points in the education sector that has put it ahead of almost all other provinces and regions of Pakistan. For example, it has always stood out in the annual district rankings during the past many years; the literacy rate is one of the highest among other areas of the country; gender disparity in enrolment and literacy rate is in a single digit; and the allocations made for the education sector this year are appreciable.
According to the budget documents, in the total budget of Rs. 94.4 billion for 2017-18, presented to the AJK Assembly, the share of development was 25%; and the share of education in the development budget was Rs. 1.7 billion, or the fifth largest with a share of 7.3%. This amount is nearly twice the amount of Rs. 852 million actually spent in 2015-16. Even the revised estimate for 2016-17 was Rs. 943 million. However, whether a jump of 88% in 2017-18 can be effectively utilised, is open to question.
Education Officer for UNICEF Asma Andarabi has some details in this regard. Talking to Cutting Edge at a seminar, she says that this massive increase in the AJK education budget in a single year was more an outcome of a sudden political announcement of doubling the total development budget for the region and not the result of a concrete programme to boost education. Some quick fix targets mostly include the completion and repair of middle and high school buildings, besides restoring 277 buildings affected by the floods of 2010.
Education Minister Barrister Iftikhar Gilani, the youngest cabinet minister, says that in terms of quantity, AJK has excelled in all levels of education. With a population of 4-4.5 million, it has five universities, three medical colleges, engineering universities, dozens of post-graduate and degree colleges and thousands of schools, which must be appreciated.
Of course, no one can dispute the claims of the minister as far as the quantitative growth of the sector is concerned. But, when it comes to quality of education, the region lags behind many parts of Pakistan. Critics say the AJK government is only keen on establishing new institutions without bothering about their quality of education, which shows lack of their proper education policy.
Muhammad Abbas, an educationist and a local People’s Party leader in Mirpur, alleges that the number of institutes and students is going up each passing year and faculties are getting undersized. New jobs are created for the benefit of acquaintances of politicians and talented youth is inclined to migrate towards other parts of Pakistan as well as foreign countries, he tells this writer in a telephonic conversation. He says that the enhanced allocation of funds have resulted in a wholesale buying of lands for proposed universities, sub-campuses of existing universities and some 17 colleges.
Mr. Abbas also sees incompetence and mismanagement in the establishment of three medical colleges, simultaneously. One medical college with sufficient seats was enough to cope with the shortage of doctors in AJK, he believes. Despite many years of struggle, he adds, not a single medical college among three is fully recognised by the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC), the regulating body of medical institutions in Pakistan.
He claims that the PMDC has banned admissions to these colleges many a time. To conceal their inefficiency and corruption, they also tried to create the AJK Medical & Dental Council (AJKMDC) to get the boat floating. However, after widespread criticism they had to take a U-turn again. Now all of these medical colleges are short of funds. There is a lack of adequate infrastructure as well. Faculties are not according to established standards and there is widespread corruption and misuse of money from bottom to top, Mr. Abbas alleges.
However, Minister Gilani is not too bothered by the criticism. He says education is one top priority area for the AJK government. In the recurring budget, education got the highest allocation of Rs. 22.6 billion, or 31.8%, he adds. It was 8.7% higher than the revised estimate of 2016-17 and 13.6% higher than the previous budget estimate. Together, the development and current budget receive 25.7% of the total budget, making education the largest claimant on the AJK’s budget, he tells Cutting Edge.
He says that a number of reforms were committed even in the budget speech. First, merit will be observed in teacher recruitment by enforcing the National Testing Service. Secondly, priority will be given to meet the staff demand in existing educational institutions. Thirdly, a biometric system is being introduced in 10 districts of AJK to ensure staff attendance. Fourthly, the Kashmir Education Assessment Authority will be set up to promote conceptual learning, and quality enhancement cells will be set up in the universities, he shares his government’s plans.
Giving further details, he says that the development budget allocated 65% to elementary and secondary education, which is an appropriate balance. The official data shows a literacy rate of 74%, primary enrolment rate of 98% for boys and 90% for girls: one of the minimum gender disparity rates across Pakistan. Also, the percentage of out-of-school children is in a single digit, which is encouraging for the state functionaries.
To deal with the issue of competence of teachers effectively, the AJK prime minister, in his speech in the assembly, announced a golden handshake scheme to lay off incompetent teachers and recruit new competent ones to revamp the education department. He said that 1,000 teachers having qualification of matriculation were being sent packing through the golden handshake scheme during this year while 1,000 more such teachers would go home by next year and new highly qualified teachers would be appointed in their place.
The Alif Ailaan district education rankings for AJK during the last two years have left behind all other parts of Pakistan. In all of the surveys most of the districts of AJK topped the categories of primary, middle and secondary levels of education. All but two of the districts were among the top 40 districts. All districts of AJK had a high education score between 70-79.
The statistics mentioned above look as if AJK is undergoing an educational revolution that would totally change its face in a few years time. However, the real situation in the region is quite different, claims Muhammad Abbas. He alleges that education quantity is soaring but quality is plunging with each passing year.
He believes that the real complications are about to emerge in the upcoming years when thousands of new graduates will enter the system — doctors, engineers, science graduates. Quality of education is deteriorating, he claims. After getting a degree, when the Kashmiri young people start seeking a job and start competing for a job, they find that they can neither qualify through written examinations, nor can express themselves well in interviews. In most cases, when they go for admission to Pakistani institutions of higher education, they fail to make the grade and fail to get into quality universities. Some good students that we find are from Cadet College Palandri and some quality private schools, but those are very expensive and very few, adds Mr. Abbas.
The political activist and educationist has some solutions to offer. The education has to be depoliticised and negative influence of local and national politicians reduced, he believes.
The teachers require training and for that the AJK authorities should try and get help from the Kashmiri diaspora in Britain. They may hire some British educationists and bring them to AJK. The teachers must learn English reading, writing and speaking. The pronunciation and writing skills must be improved.
Mr. Abbas also suggests to start a reward and punishment system. Any teacher who fails to produce results, must be fired. And any teacher who produces good results, must be rewarded, he concludes.