Much of that has resonance in India, home to one of the largest education set-ups in the world. Excerpts of an interview with Pakistan's Education Minister Shams Kassim-Lakha, president of the Agha Khan University for three decades, after his meeting in New Delhi with South Asian counterparts.
Q. Madrasa reform has been billed as one of the major achievements of the Pervez Musharraf administration. How did the government deal with that?
A. Firstly, people always talk of madrasas as the place where bad things happen. Yes, they may have happened. But for 1,400 years Muslim countries and Muslim Ummah around the world relied on the institution of the madrassa. It has been a wonderful institution that provided education, provided those who could not afford even food and lodging, but in many cases the nature of the institution got a little bit behind times. Which is OK, but it doesn't give you critical thinking skills of the kind you need today to compete in this world.
That happened because heavy emphasis was on memorizing and not necessarily the application of knowledge. Consequently in many countries of the world they have had this problem that those who graduate out of the madrasa are good at certain things but unable to cope in others. With a lot of these things compounding - poverty is there, unemployment is there - people have no choice but to send their people to madrasas.
Where things could be better and are being looked at is to reform the curriculum. Religious teaching is not what we are trying to reform. If they want to teach it their way, good luck, please do it - who am I to tell you my sect is better than yours?
But you are welcome to use the national curriculum with whatever modification is necessary ... on math, English, science and computers. Those are the critical factors of being able to cope with life. This programme has been introduced.
Q. That's a political minefield, isn't it?
A. There are sensitivities - and I will not want to mince my words - there are sensitivities that we don't want to rush into something only to find that we have opened a hornet's nest. And so the Ministry of Religious Affairs is very much involved in taking into the next phase because there is a little more rapport rather than forcing something down somebody's throats. It is a voluntary arrangement. We are not forcing people to do this. The methodologies, the curriculum we are providing, and we are there to help whenever needed. And we are now finding that madrassas are writing to us - "I had asked for all these things, they have not been supplied in time, whats the matter?" You can't give up religion. And yet, how do you assimilate these new ideas early on? That is the balance.
Q: What were your challenges in university education? And how did you go about dealing with them?
A. We got a commitment from the government. I asked President Musharraf whether there was the political will - because it was a difficult task. Universities are very difficult to reform and change. There are faculty unions or associations, student associations, curriculum is one of the most difficult things to change.
Its like -- its difficult to move a graveyard because the occupants don't want to move. It's the same with the curriculum - those who practice it are not interested in change. There is the issue of the evaluation of faculty, on the amount of their teaching and the research they conduct.
The aim was to change and only two per cent of the budget was going to research. It was ridiculously low. So we got a commitment from President Musharraf's government in 2002 that the budget for universities will be increased by 50 per cent each year.
In my capacity as chair of the task force of higher education reform and chair of the steering committee to implement that reform,we now rank universities, see that promotions are given on a tenured track. Tax for all faculty members - whether in schools, colleges or universities - has been reduced for 5 per cent from the average of 30 per cent at that level. Rather than increase their salaries, we reduced their tax, so that gave them a 25-30 per cent edge.
Q. Did this also come with improving infrastructure - laboratories, classrooms, campuses?
A. Our first aim was to go in for infrastructure improvement - laboratories, campus buildings, dorms, and all of that has meant that all our private and public sector universities are wired. Campuses have access to broadband at 600 dollars a year and they are linked to the biggest libraries of the world. 40,000 scientific and other journals are available online.
Enrolment has increased by 30 to 40 per cent in the last two years. Enrolment in 2000 was 125,000. Now it is over 200,000 and it is growing at the rate of 15 to 17 per cent. Our limitation is capacity and the other limitation is quality.
Q. Did this involve privatization?
A. We have continuous growth of private sector universities. There are three stages of accreditation.
Q. But did all this make higher education expensive?
A. That did make higher education expensive - but not as much as we were worried about. In my university it would cost up to Rs. 2.5 lakh to get a medical degree. It was entirely on merit. When people came with donations, I said we will take the donation but we will take your child only if your child passes. Then no one came to me with those donations.
Q. And did it prevent people from going overseas to study?
A. The best brains in medicine and engineering in the subcontinent or Europe or Canada go to the United States. There has been a lot of self-flagellation. In Canada, every year they lost two medical schools of people to the US. Doctors and nurses are migrating regularly. The bulk of our faculty are those who come back to Pakistan. If all those doctors who went away from Pakistan were to come back, they wouldn't have a job at comparable levels.
Q. No, my question was more about whether fewer students are leaving the country now to go overseas.
A. Fewer younger people are going abroad to study. New capacities are being created. There is a huge drain on our countries when you think of the number of people going abroad for undergraduate studies.
The country has relied very heavily on the private sector providing education. Our constitution says that the state has a duty to provide education. The state has not invested as much money as it should. Many other priorities.
Last few years, the amount of money that has gone into education has gone substantially higher, into primary and secondary education. It meant improving the curriculum, improving the facilities and improving teacher education. Teachers are never enough paid, but government teachers get much better facilities. But they are not getting the quality of education.
Q. One issue that has been often debated in India is of changes in curriculum. Did you run into that challenge of ideology?
A. Very big time. We have had more than our share of challenges. Ideology issues come in. What is the ideology of the state? How was it created? People have different viewpoints. They look at the current, future, they look at the neighbourhood. A very important complication arises when a very overwhelming majority of people are of one religion - not the pluralism of the type that exists here, though you have had your share of problems.
If we don't focus on teaching Islamiyat, people will say what kind of school is this where you don't teach about the religion in which we all believe? It's the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Fair enough - but then there comes the question of whose Islam? There is the Shia islam, and the Sunni Islam. Within the Sunnis there are the Barelwis, the Deobandis, all kinds of things -- and within the Shias … so those are areas of potential tension and one has to define that within a school curriculum for young people. It is very easy to say `this is only for class two - but if you don't define these concepts fully, the mindsets become complicated.
It has not been an easy task, and the good news is that we now have a national education policy … and my task over the next few weeks is to take it to the Cabinet and get it approved.
The good news is that Pakistan over the past five to seven years has begun to grasp the nettle. That's important.