COVID-19 and the problematic Pakistani education system

Photo by Oussama Zaidi on Unsplash

With its higher education system ranked the lowest in 2018 by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British ranking agency, the Pakistani education system had major flaws. Hence, when the Covid-19 pandemic presented some unprecedented circumstances, the system failed to cater to the need of the moment leaving students across the nation in a quandary.

The pandemic caused widespread closure of schools across the country from the second week of March till September 2020 along with the cancellation of all major exams including board examinations and Cambridge O/A levels exams. Since then, all educational institutions have been alternating between online and physical classes which have negatively impacted student learning. It was estimated that school closures during the pandemic would result in a loss of  0.3 to 0.8 years of learning-adjusted schooling for the average student. Although an impressive infrastructure was put in place to support remote learning, it hasn’t been accessible to everyone due to the prevalent digital divide in the country, and the lack of trained teaching personnel.

This year, however, it was decided by the Ministry of Federal Education that all major exams will be held as scheduled despite the worsening COVID-19 situation across the country, and the closing of schools. The federal minister of education, Shafqat Mahmood, assured all standard operating procedures will be followed in the examination halls. This decision led to high school students taking to the streets and protesting for the cancellation of exams in many cities. In the wake of numerous countries around the world cancelling Cambridge exams, including India, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and England, petitions for cancellation of exams have been filed in four High Courts across the country. All the High Courts maintained the decision to hold exams.

This led to several hashtags like CancelAllExams to trend on Twitter in Pakistan for several days. Students then took a different approach, contacting several members of national and provincial assemblies asking them to either support them or lose their votes in upcoming elections. As a result, many political officials, both from the governing and opposition parties, came out in support of the students urging the decision-makers to reverse their decision. Alongside this, many videos showing poor compliance of standard operating procedures (SOPs) outside and inside examination halls circulated on social media. Their efforts bore fruit and so the decision to cancel all exams until 15th June was taken, except for A2 and composite A-Level exams.

However, the problem remains. School assessed grades (SAGs) are not offered to Pakistani students, which means they will have to take exams in a later series and consequently, will fall behind international students. For A2 students, their health is compromised if they decide to take exams in the current May/June series, yet if they refuse, they will miss an entire session. As for AS students, not only will their scholarships be discontinued until the results come out in January, which puts students from unstable financial backgrounds at a disadvantage, their performance in A2 exams is also likely to be negatively impacted due to less time available for preparation. Moreover, there is no certainty that the COVID-19 situation in the country will be under control by the following exam series, therefore postponing exams can not be the only contingency plan.

Although the deadline for switching to SAGs has passed, students across the country remain in protest. However, the education minister has made it clear that no student will be awarded grades or marks without taking their exams. Nepal, another country that had cancelled exams, opted for SAGs after the deadline had passed, which has made students question why the Pakistan government are the only one not giving SAGs.

It is also interesting to note how such hashtags are no longer trending on Twitter. We can argue this may be because a large fraction of students have given up, or it may be because their main goal was to solely get the exams postponed, and their concern about their future and health wasn’t as genuine as it was claimed to be! This highlights another flaw in the system which relies too much on rote memorization and outdated examination methods, therefore causing the majority of students to have no interest in learning.

Whilst students have labelled the ruling political party as “Anti-Students," and demanded either the resignation of the Federal Minister of Education or the use of SAGs, the Minister has not swayed under the pressure. Therefore, the chance of student demands being fulfilled is slim.

These recent events have shone a light on the need for the revival of Student Unions, to ensure that the student's rights aren’t infringed and to give them a collective voice. These unions also play an essential role in the political nurturing of society and act as proper forums to voice and address the issues faced by the students. Had there already been such unions, it could have possibly reduced the amount of mental distress the students experienced due to the uncertainty surrounding the cancellation of exams.

Muhammad Jibran, a lawyer and an activist who has been working to ensure that student demands are fulfilled, tweeted "Students were on the streets since 1 April & in Courts since 9 April trying to communicate to you their concerns, the Covid threat, 17 April deadline.” This implies the government should have taken the decision earlier and raises the question that it may be the Ministry of Education's incompetence and lack of judgement that has put the students in this unfavourable situation. The evidence that all major school systems across the world have favoured the SAGs further highlights the ineptitude displayed by the decision-makers.

Covid-19 has highlighted major flaws in the Pakistani education system. It has not only magnified the inequalities during remote learning but also illustrated the lack of flexibility and foresight shown by the policymakers. This has been evidenced by the slim possibility of awarding SAGs due to deep-rooted corruption in the system, both at the ground level and in the administration, and also by the lack of effective communication between the Ministry of Education, the school administrations and the student bodies. This is evident from the contradicting course of action taken by some schools when they suggested that students should take AS exams despite the update from the government stating the opposite. The interference of ones religious beliefs with education standards was demonstrated when a member of the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board mistook a picture of Isaac Newton in a textbook for a woman and suggested that the picture should be edited to add a scarf on her head to observe proper purdah!

Needless to say, the system is long due for a change, not only to make it more inclusive but also to ensure that it is on par with the global standards of education and that the student's rights aren’t stomped upon.