Improving Standards and Opportunity for Higher Education in Pakistan

Diane Ravitch





The most reasonable and productive way to increase participation and improve standards in higher education is to strengthen and expand the institutions that prepare students for higher education. The educational system of a nation is inevitably shaped like a pyramid, with the highest and narrowest point—higher education—at the top of the pyramid. In Pakistan, the top of the pyramid is very narrow (with less than 3% of young people ages 17–24 enrolled in college or university) as compared to developed nations (where 50–75% of this age group are so enrolled). If Pakistan seeks to have the very substantial benefits that flow from having a highly educated population, if it seeks to create an educational system that will contribute to the nation’s economic and social development, then it must sharply improve the quantity and quality of elementary and secondary education so that a far larger portion of the population, including both boys and girls, are prepared to enter institutions of higher education.


When I was invited to participate, I asked myself what I could tell an audience of distinguished educators from Pakistan about their own country. I am not a specialist in the study of education in Pakistan or in Asia. I am a historian of American education. I have studied American education for forty years. I do not claim special qualifications to comment on your country. But, over the course of a long career of study, I have learned quite a lot about the role of education in the development of a nation. I eagerly accepted the invitation to prepare a paper for this symposium because I wanted to learn more about Pakistan and wanted to do whatever I could to help your country improve its education system. I hope that what I have written will prove helpful to educators in Pakistan.

If Pakistan seeks to improve its economy and raise the standard of living for its citizens, it must improve the educational opportunities available to all of its citizens. Education should be the right of every child. Education is the most essential means of self-development. Education is the foundation of national prosperity. Education is the most important mechanism for building human capital. Education is the primary means of creating and multiplying intellectual capital. Education is society’s instrument for widely distributing intelligence and knowledge. Education is the fundamental engine of economic growth, social development, and cultural vitality.

Education does not solve all economic and social problems, but it directly increases the proportion of the population who are empowered to contribute to the solution of those problems.

So long as large percentages of the population do not have access to basic literacy, a nation cannot develop its full human potential. So long as large percentages of the population do not have a chance to advance to secondary and postsecondary education, the nation’s ability to improve its standard of living will be stunted. So long as higher education remains available only to a tiny proportion of the most advantaged members of the population, the nation will restrict its capacity for full economic, social, intellectual, and cultural development.

Many nations in the world have recognized that education is the key to development, and they are devoting significant shares of their national income to improving their schools and universities. Those nations that do not invest in education will fall farther and farther behind in the global economy.

With the fullest provision of education, a nation can identify talented individuals in all geographical regions and in all social strata of the population and can enable them to develop their minds and talents for the benefit of their family, their community, their region, and the entire society.

At present, only a tiny proportion of young people in Pakistan are enrolled in a college or university. This proportion should be increased, but this cannot happen unless Pakistan improves the quality and availability of schools for young people below the age of 17. It is unrealistic to expect that enrollment will grow in higher education unless the number of youngsters who are prepared for postsecondary education increases.

Expecting to improve the quality and standards in higher education without improving the availability and quality of schools is a mirage. It cannot happen. It would be like attempting to build a building without first establishing a strong foundation.

The proportion of students who are ready for higher education cannot be substantially increased until Pakistan addresses severe problems in the availability and quality of elementary and secondary schools. In order to increase the proportion of young people who are prepared to enroll in higher education, Pakistan must increase the proportion of young people who attend and graduate from secondary school.

The problems are daunting. But there is no alternative to finding solutions, to taking the steps that are necessary to solve these daunting problems. Pakistan must set goals and pursue them consistently by applying the necessary ingenuity and committing the necessary public and private resources. Certainly Pakistan has many competing national priorities, but education is the one activity that promises to help in the solution of all other problems. It is the one activity that will expand the reservoir of educated citizens and thus supply the skills and the brainpower to solve problems in every community and region throughout the nation.

On March 12, 2005, Minister of Education Javed Ashraf spoke at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University, where he described the current situation. According to Minister Ashraf, Pakistan today has one of the lowest literacy rates—51.6%—in the region. The literacy rate includes a large gender disparity, with 63.7% literacy among males, and 39.2% among females. Similar gender disparities are found across the education sector, in primary school enrollment, in secondary school enrollment, and in the proportion of those who complete secondary school and enter higher education. (Ashraf, 2005)

In a paper presented at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University on April 4, 2005, Dr. Shahid Hafeez Kardar estimated that as many as 30% of the relevant age group of children are not enrolled in primary school, and that nearly 60% are not enrolled in secondary school. Nearly twice as many boys complete primary schools, as compared to girls. Nearly twice as many boys enroll in secondary schools, as compared to girls. Barely 10% of the relevant age group completes secondary schooling, again with large gender disparities. Dr. Kardar reports that the percent of public sector spending on education declined between 1990 and 2002. (Kardar, 2005)

These numbers portray the sharpness of the pyramidal structure in which less than 3% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are enrolled in higher education. They also show that girls and women are consistently less likely to gain access to basic education or to the education necessary to prepare for higher education.

I need not point out to this audience that women are as capable of contributing to the advance of science, medicine, technology, business, and the arts as their male counterparts. For a nation to squander their talents by failing to provide them equal educational opportunity is a serious and unnecessary loss to the nation.

In July 2005, Pakistan was ranked last out of 14 Asian Pacific countries in a report investigating the commitment of developing nations to basic education. This report was published by the Asian South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, a network of some 200 organizations involved in adult education. The report found that 58.9% of adults were illiterate. It gave Pakistan an F rating because of the nation’s high levels of adult illiteracy, the large proportions of children who are not enrolled in primary or secondary school, the persistent gender disparities at every level, and low per capita spending on education. (Daily Times, 2005)

Most certainly, the government must continue to expand its programs to increase adult literacy. The demands of the modern world are such that persons without literacy will be permanently excluded from participation in large sectors of the economy and are far more likely to experience poverty, ill health, and a shorter life span than those who are literate. Illiteracy is remediable, and in the twenty-first century it is unpardonable to tolerate it.

The most strenuous efforts must be taken to assure that all children in every province and geographical region enroll in and complete primary school, and that enrollments in secondary schools steadily increase. Government efforts must also be directed to the improvement of teacher training and the modernization of school curricula.

The reasons that children do not enroll in school or do not remain in school are well-known: poverty, the cost of school fees and uniforms, the distance of the school from their home, parental hostility to the education of girls, and inferior physical facilities. Many schools lack not only qualified teachers but also classroom furniture, books, blackboards, electricity, and toilets. Some communities do not even have a functioning government school.

It is the responsibility of the regional or national government to ensure that there is a well-equipped primary school in every town and village. Government should supply bus transportation for students who live in rural areas so that they can attend school. Government has the obligation to make sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a free school with free textbooks. No student should be excluded from opportunity for education because his or her parents cannot afford the cost of tuition, uniforms, books, or supplies. Government has the responsibility to examine teachers and certify that they are competent to teach. Government must also take a leading role in persuading the public that girls have the same right to an education as boys.

Various scholars have reported that the private sector is more efficient and more successful in educating students than the public sector (European Commission Report, 2002). Neither sector has been successful in reaching all children or retaining a sufficient proportion of students in school through secondary completion. Clearly there is a need for promotion of both sectors and increased collaboration between sectors to achieve their shared goals of higher enrollments and higher completion rates.

Government, in collaboration with the private sector, should explore the uses of technology to provide “distance learning” for secondary students in hard-to-reach areas or in hard-to-staff school subjects. Distance learning is often utilized to bring education to students in inaccessible geographical regions or to bring instruction in advanced subjects or technical studies to schools that are not large enough to offer those subjects or that are unable to hire a highly qualified teacher for the subject. Technology today makes it possible for a single teacher who is teaching an advanced subject—for example, physics or calculus—to offer instruction and to interact with students in many locations at the same time, enabling students to ask questions and get answers immediately.

The government might consider a program of scholarships allotted to families or students to be used in either public or private schools that offer a modern scientific curriculum. Such a program may well encourage local authorities or private schools to open new schools, expand their offerings, and increase their enrollment. Such a program might involve larger stipends for students who are unlikely to enroll—such as girls in rural areas—or provide bonuses to schools based on increasing the overall graduation rate, thus giving the schools a financial incentive to enroll these students and retain them until they finish secondary school.

Pakistan will be unable to expand its higher education enrollment until it has taken significant and decisive steps to address the problems of primary and secondary education. The government should set concrete annual targets, intended to make progress towards the following goals:

  1. To increase enrollments in primary schools;
  2. To increase enrollments in secondary schools;
  3. To increase the secondary school completion rate;
  4. To reduce the disparity between boys and girls in enrollment and completion at every level of schooling;
  5. To increase the adult literacy rate.

The government should invite representatives from the public and private sectors to develop a comprehensive plan to make steady progress towards these goals. These goals should attract very broad support. Without advancing on these five fronts, education in Pakistan will continue to languish and to hinder the development of the nation.

Implementation will undoubtedly require a higher level of government support for education at every level. Yet no one can doubt that Pakistan’s future development depends on its current commitment to improve education and guarantee the right of every child to a sound education.

The children and youth of Pakistan need an education that prepares them to participate in the modern industrial and postindustrial world. This means that the curriculum of the schools must be secular, scientific, and attuned to the changing economy of the modern world. Students must become accustomed to asking questions and thinking critically about whatever they read and whatever they study. They should study science and mathematics, as well as history, language, literature, and the arts. Students in secondary schools should have access to studies that prepare them for higher education, and also to technical and vocational studies that prepare them to work in a modern office or workplace.

What should the higher education sector look like a generation from today in Pakistan? Let us assume for the sake of the discussion that many of the problems I have described have been successfully addressed. Let us assume that instead of 10% of youth graduating from secondary school, that the figure is 50% or more of the relevant age group. Many, perhaps most, of these young people will want to attend college or university. Among them will be people with a wide diversity of interests, ambitions, and capacities. What they have in common will be their desire and need for more education beyond secondary school.

Pakistan can best meet the needs of its people for higher education by creating a system with different kinds of institutions. The higher education system in California is, I think, a useful model.

At the top are elite institutions—like the University of California at Berkeley or the University of California at Los Angeles—that have very strict admissions standards and offer a challenging program of liberal arts and sciences; the graduates of these institutions frequently plan to engage in postgraduate or professional studies.

In the middle tier are state universities where the standards of admission are less demanding than the elite institutions. These public universities offer a broad array of courses in liberal arts and sciences, as well as courses in business, modern management, and technical careers. Their students may continue on to graduate or professional studies or enter the workforce.

In a third tier are community colleges that offer a two-year degree. These colleges accept anyone with a secondary school diploma, with no entrance examination; many of them do not even require a secondary school diploma. They offer a wide range of courses, many of them in technical, vocational, and practical studies, which prepare students for jobs and careers.

I should point out that students ought to have the opportunity to transfer to a more rigorous institution or to a less rigorous institution, to one that is more academic or one that is more vocational, reflecting their own choice and ambition for the future.

There are other models that no doubt would serve the purposes of Pakistan quite well. The important point with higher education is the recognition that students have different purposes and different goals. Higher education best serves them and the nation if it includes institutions designed to meet different purposes.

Pakistan, perhaps, will create its own model that works best to meet the needs of its citizens and society. The national experience of Pakistan is unlike that of any other nation. Educators in Pakistan are best qualified to decide how to proceed in designing a system of higher education. They will do so, I hope, with full knowledge that higher education is the apex of a national system of education, whose success is directly dependent on the quality and availability of elementary and secondary schools. And they will do so, I hope, with full recognition that education is a great engine of national development, social development, intellectual development, cultural development, economic development, and individual development.


Ashraf, Javed, “Challenges in the Education Sector in Pakistan,” Address to Seminar at Johns Hopkins University, March 12, 2005 (

Daily Times (Islamabad), “Report on Developing Countries’ Commitment to Education: Pakistan Education System Ranked Lowest in 14 Asian Countries,” July 13, 2005 (

European Commission Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management Unit, “Report of the EC Rapid Reaction Mechanism Assessment Mission: Pakistan, Education” (June 2002), p. 24.

Kardar, Shahid Hafeez, “Overview of the Education Sector in Pakistan: Identifying Key Issues,” Presentation to Seminar at Johns Hopkins University, April 4, 2005 (