“The idea that more money for education is the only way to put kids in school is a myth that needs to be busted,” says Ahmed Ali, Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS).
His view is supported by other experts, who question the popular refrain that doubling the education budget will resolve Pakistan’s education crisis.
According to Naheed Shah Durrani, who until recently served as the education secretary for Sindh, “The debate needs to go beyond ‘more money.’ The money needs to be better managed.”
The truth is that most provinces have more than doubled their budgets since 2010. Sindh has nearly octupled its budget – from Rs23 billion to nearly Rs176 billion.
KP and Balochistan are on their way to tripling their budgets since 2010. Punjab has doubled its budget.
But the provinces which do well are the ones that spend their money well.
“Most people have not done their homework,” continues Ali. “Education departments have more employees in Pakistan than the Pakistan Army,” he said.
Where does the money go?
Pakistan’s education budgets for 2016-17 total $7.5 billion or Rs790 billion. In comparison, the defence budget is $8.2 billion or Rs860 billion.
The education budget figure includes provincial spending plus the small federal budget that goes to higher education and schools in Islamabad.
The higher spending, however, does not automatically reach children. Without reforms in planning and management, the extra funds are likely to be wasted on hiring tens of thousands of new, non-performing teachers.
Most of Sindh’s new spending has already gone into teachers’ salaries. The province spends at least twelve times as much on teacher salaries than it did in 2010 –going up from Rs7 billion to Rs90 billion in 2014-15, according to budget charts prepared by I-SAPS in their recently released analytical report, “Public Financing of Education in Pakistan: 2010-11 to 2015-16”.
According to KP Education Minister Atif Khan, 55pc of the provincial government’s employees belong to the education department. In Balochistan, 52pc of all provincial salaries go to the education sector employees according to World Bank figures.
But there has not been a corresponding increase on provincial learning assessments. Punjab’s salary budget has gone up by 74pc since 2010 but test scores have increased by only 7pc, according to I-SAPS. There has been zero improvement in Sindh.
Provinces typically over-spend their budget for salaries and under-spend their “development” budgets for building, renovating and maintaining schools.
Last year, Sindh spent 90pc of its development budget, KP spent almost 80pc and Punjab spent less than half. Balochistan’s figures are not yet available but they have typically spent half.
Where did this yardstick come from?
International practice suggests that there are multiple ways to gauge public spending on education besides the percentage of GDP, including: per cent of budget spent on education, nominal education spending and per-student expenditure.
Using the GDP measure, Pakistan under-spends on education in comparison to other countries. It budgeted 2.2pc of its GDP against an international minimum standard of 4pc, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16. Alif Ailaan’s estimate was higher, at 2.68pc.
But if one uses other international standards, Pakistan is at risk of over-spending on education.
Unesco recommends that a government spend 15 to 20pc of its budgets on education. Provinces in Pakistan allocated between 20 and 27pc of their budgets on education in 2015-16, according to Alif Ailaan and I-SAPS figures. Pakistan is not only meeting the Unesco recommendation, but exceeding it.
In order for Pakistan to meet the 4pc target today, the provinces would have to spend the equivalent of 30 to 40pc of current provincial budgets on education based on Alif Ailaan’s calculations in their report, “The Road to Getting to 4% of GDP”.
This will squeeze funding for other things that schoolchildren need to learn and to prosper in the future – healthcare, electricity, roads, and security.
In addition, with economic growth projected above 5.5pc in the coming years, Pakistan would have to spend more and more to maintain the 4pc ratio.
Pakistan’s economy is growing but this does not mean that the government has more money to spend.
That only comes from taxes. Without raising taxes, the political obligation to spend money on education can become an unsustainable burden on the budget.
Parents are spending as much as the government
“Spending on education in Pakistan is actually not 2pc of GDP. That’s just state spending,” points out Faisal Bari.
“We’re leaving out what parents spend on private education in Pakistan.”
Private spending is usually not counted in international comparisons because it is hard to calculate and because most countries don’t spend as much as Pakistan.
But here, as in Nigeria, where public education is also weak, private schools have mushroomed. One in every three primary school students is enrolled in private schools in Pakistan, mostly low-cost private schools that charge Rs300 to Rs2,500 per month.
Parents privately spend another $8 billion or Rs829 billion on education, according to I-SAPS. About half of this (Rs398 billion) goes to private schools and the rest (Rs431 billion) goes to the “shadow sector” meaning any unregistered and unregulated educational services that operate after 2pm, such as tuition centres.
That doubles national spending to over $15 billion or Rs1.5 trillion per year.
Fixing the system first
“They need to figure out the reforms first. Without reform, spending becomes a problem. It’s just spending for the sake of spending,” says Ali Inam, a consultant on Punjab education.
Reforms can also save money. When Sindh recently digitised teacher employment records, 3,000 teachers were removed from the payrolls.
If digitisation is completed, and accountability measures are put in place to address closed schools and ghost employees, Sindh’s savings in one year could equal what USAID has set aside for Sindh education over five years.
“Many of the issues that need to be addressed don’t require much money,” says HaroonSethi, who works on Punjab reforms under DFID.
“It’s not more money that leads to results, but money being used well,” Inam adds. “The Punjab government is spending Rs1,400 to Rs1,700 per child per month through state schools, but when it pays Rs700 per child to a private school to enroll students, it gets better results.”
Such views are also supported by research.
A 2002 World Bank report on education financing concludes, “There is no theoretically optimum level of expenditure a country should devote to education.”
Instead, it stresses that education expenditure must be adequate, sustainable and efficient.
Indeed, the problem in Pakistan is not that the country is not spending enough. In fact, it is spending too much and not getting enough in return. Debate should focus on how the education budget is being managed rather than chasing abstract international standards.