THE budget season is here. Like every year we’ll be hearing calls to increase the education budget. By now we all know that the Pakistani state — the federation as well as the provinces — spends a paltry 2pc of GDP on education.
By comparison, Bhutan spends over 5pc of its GDP on education and India 3.8pc. Countries in the West spend over 5pc while Scandinavian countries, often ranked at the top of international literacy and numeracy tables, spend in excess of 6pc.
When set against the number of children our education system leaves behind (estimates range from 11 to 25 million five- to 16-year-olds out of school), the amount of allocated funds for education appears criminally low. So what should be done?
A handy solution is available: increase the allocated budget for education to 4pc of GDP. Many experts and activists have been trying to convince successive administrations to do this. Other than appealing to our primate mind’s love for symmetry (doubling the education budget) where does the figure come from?
It comes from the Unesco-led Education for All movement. The recommendation states that governments should aim to spend 4-6pc of GDP on education or 15-20pc of their budgets in order to achieve goals such as universal primary enrolment, increasing literacy and achieving gender equality in education. Since then, the 4pc figure has been adopted locally by experts and activists as a rallying point to encourage greater spending on education.
Despite pressure from civil society, academics and donors, the government has failed to spend more than 2pc of GDP on education.
Why is it that we have not been able to increase the allocation? The simple answer is mathematics. We collect barely 10pc of our GDP in taxes and run a fiscal deficit of around 5pc. Carving out 4pc for education is easier said than done.
We are focusing our priorities away from primary schools.
There are two important things to note. First, we don’t do zero-based budgeting. That is, we do not start every fiscal year, tear up the previous year’s budget and start from scratch, deciding rationally about the most economically efficient or the most socially responsible way of using the limited money we have.
We do something called incremental budgeting, instead. We look at how much we spent last year on each line item and increase that amount slightly. Some line items have more political weight behind them or have more influential bureaucrats in the relevant ministry. These may see a larger increase, but nothing changes drastically.
Second, most education spending happens at the provincial level. That means that in order to achieve the 4pc target, five sets of political economies need to be influenced and convinced to drastically increase budgetary allocations for education. And unless there is a sudden increase in fiscal revenue, we are essentially saying, ‘cut something else’.
If we could increase spending on education significantly it would be a huge fillip to the pursuit of helping each child avail himself/herself of the opportunity of a good education; a goal we have committed to in our Constitution.
Unless there is a revolution in tax collection in Pakistan I am not holding my breath in the hope that that 4pc allocation will materialise. However, there is another question to ask. How do we spend the 2pc which we do allocate for education?
When looking at actual spending, we find that the vast majority of state spending on education goes towards current expenditures (salaries, maintenance, etc). Development allocations (earmarked for school construction, etc.) are almost always left underspent at the end of the fiscal year.
When we look at how the state spends education funds a perverse reality becomes apparent. For some reason, primary schooling is seen as basic and therefore less important by policymakers, as well as teachers. Teachers would rather teach higher grades and policymakers would rather build secondary schools.
What this means is that while the system as a whole is trying to get more and more primary school-age children into school, we seem to be focusing more of our priorities away from primary schools. Look at the data on school facilities. High schools have more complete physical facilities than middle schools and middle schools have more complete facilities than primary schools.
There are more teachers per student at higher grade levels and fewer teachers in primary schools. This is because schools need more teachers per child at higher grade levels, while a significant number of primary schoolchildren attend schools where there is only one teacher. We end up spending thousands of rupees per child per year in secondary school and a fraction on primary schoolchildren.
Getting 4pc of the GDP instead of 2pc would be great. Getting 6pc would be even better. But the more important point isn’t the size of the budget, but what we do with it.
The writer is an associate fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2015