From madrasas to textbooks to campuses, Pakistan has thrust its hand into the beehive of education reform — one of the biggest challenges to its society.
"The good news is that Pakistan over the past five to seven years has begun to grasp the nettle," Pakistan's Education Minister Shams Kassim-Lakha told the Hindustan Times after meetings with South Asian counterparts in New Delhi.
That has included the introduction of "secular" subjects like mathematics, English, science and computer education into madrasa curricula, paying for those teachers, threatening madrasas with closure if they did not register with the government, and denying official funds to madrasas with alleged links to militancy.
"There are sensitivities — and I will not want to mince my words — that we don't want to rush into something only to find that we have opened a hornet's nest," said Kassim-Lakha, who was president of the Agha Khan University for three decades. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has been pulled in to convince madrasas to sign up.
Across the border in Karachi, education analyst Prof. Abbas Hussain said the steps on madrasa reform were "a fresh air of change", with only some schools resisting it.
"One interpretation of our crisis as a nation is our cumulative neglect of education," Hussain, director of the Teachers Development Centre, said in a telephone interview. "A good number of madrasa heads have realised that if they don't give modern education they are doing a disservice to their students in not preparing them for the modern world."
Pakistan, a country of 164 million people, has 251,000 education institutions, including 12,100 madrasas. Out of 36 million students of all ages nationwide, 1.5 million go to madrasas, according to the education ministry.
A bigger success story has come from university campuses. Budgets have multiplied, infrastructure has been pumped into campuses, teachers' salaries raised and taxes slashed drastically.
Only 2 per cent of the universities' earlier budget of $85 million was going to research - since 2002, it has been increased by 50 per cent each year. Tax for schools, college and university teachers was cut to five per cent from the highest levels of 30 per cent. Many university teachers get up to $5,000 a month.
University enrollment has increased by 30 to 40 per cent in the last two years. It was 125,000 in 2000; it stands at over 200,000, growing at the rate of 17 per cent.
"Things are rosy at the level of universities — but how many people make it to universities?" said Hussain. "There is a 50 per cent dropout rate at grade five and 30 per cent dropout rate at grade 10."
And the new, ongoing battle is on changing the curriculum. Over the next weeks, Kassim-Lakha said he would take a new National Education Policy, which cements all those reforms, to the Cabinet for its approval.
"The changes are important in theory — but we have to see how they work out. A lot of the textbooks in Pakistan's schools and government colleges are extremely communal," said Kamal Mitra Chenoy of the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.