Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Madrassas vs private schools in Pakistan

A reader here recently pointed me to this fascinating article, The Madrassa Myth by Asim Khwaja. The main argument is that the importance of madrassas in Pakistan (and their subsequent impact on terrorism) has been greatly exaggerated. If nothing else, it provides an alternative view point that can be debated based on data:

The post-9/11 emphasis on Pakistan continues to portray madrassas (religious schools) as a focal point – their rising prevalence the subject of great concern. What is surprising is that this “myth” persists despite evidence to the contrary – that madrassas are in fact not the real revolution in the Pakistani educational landscape but rather it is affordable private non-religious “mom-and-pop” schools that now dot the (rural) landscape.

In a series of papers in the past few years using publicly verifiable data sources and established statistical techniques my colleagues and I have documented this private sector revolution and the relative absence of a madrassa revolution.[1]

And here are the numbers:
Using the latest publicly available educational census data, Madrassas in 2005-06 still only accounted for 1.3 percent of enrolled children (In Pakistan’s four provinces), versus 34 percent in non-religious private schools and the remainder in public schools. The graph below shows that while there is indeed some increase in madrassas over time, the far more striking growth is for non-religious private schools.Moreover these non-religious private schools are increasingly catering to the middle and poor class. With monthly fees less than a days' unskilled wage rate, they are affordable and attract students from even the poorest households. Madrassas are therefore simply not the schools of last resort. For the average Pakistani child, even among the poor living in rural areas and in urban slums, the most likely alternative to a decrepit public school is not a madrassa but a private school, or no schooling at all. Moreover, despite the low fees and low wages (a fifth of public sector teacher wages) and less qualified (local women) teachers, they offer substantially higher quality education than public schools (likely by better incentivizing and selecting their teachers).
Now, while reading this post, I was thinking about the number of unregistered madrassas. Pakistan government has been trying for some time to get a real handle on the number of madrassas. Sure enough, the first comment to this article brings up this very issue and I agree with the assessment:


Though i agree with you when you talk about the "Madressah Myth" i believe your data source i.e., National Education Census 2005 does not take into account the large number of unregistered madressas in the country. In your paper you quoted an intelligence report presented to the cabinet which put the number of unregistered madressas at 25,000 (1992). The 90s was the decade when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan and it had a spill-over effect on the bordering areas of Pakistan, along the Durand line in NWFP and Balochistan. And that probably seeped into Punjab and Sindh gradually. So that 25,000 looks a bit low in my opinion.

I wonder how much of a surge the 1.3% would see if you incorporate the "unregistered" madressas presumably not covered by the census. I personally believe that though the hoopla surrounding the role played by madressas in media has been a bit exaggerated in the past, the 1.3% is a tad too small a figure.

The former government was in the process of "registering" madressas and "enlighten their curriculum" but i doubt those efforts have born any fruit.

Once again, i agree with your argument, and am looking forward to see your work covered in the Pakistani media.

But it was also good to see Saleem Ali, author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan, chime in for a critique of the madrassa myth:

Unfortunately Asim and colleagues are really missing the trees for the forest. As someone who has studied madrassas for the past five years and published a book on this topic recently, I am quite alarmed by this continuing narrative from Asim who I respect greatly. appear to be functioning with two rather errant premises:

a) that the absolute number of madrassas is somehow an indicator of conflict development

b) that private schools can somehow drain out the madrassa students and the institution of madrassas will then just wither away.

I am also alarmed that the authors refuse to consider that almost all of the recent suicide bombings in this year have been carried out by madrassa students (I am basing this on interviews I conducted recently in Lahore with police personnel). The claims of madrassa linkage to violence are thus not "unsupported," but frighteningly real. Must we forget the Red mosque episode in Islamabad only two years ago? (that was a madrassa as well).

However, I have not given up on madrassas as an institution and feel that they can indeed be reformed internally as I have tried to provide evidence for in terms of madrassas in other Muslim countries.

Sadly this is an example of using quantitative research erroneously to suggest policy change without having clear ethnographic familiarity with the situation.

This is an excellent example of the complex situation in Pakistan. However, much is riding on our understanding of the topic and on the resulting policy decisions. Read the full article here.


Don said...

Good submission by Nilesh! It seems like the most important pieces of information are 1) the growth of non-religious private schools (I wonder how much their curriculum coincides with that of public schools) and 2) as Saleem Ali pointed out, the somewhat unexplored premise that "that the absolute number of madrassas is somehow an indicator of conflict development". Although, in the case of anti-science, anti-modernism debates, the curriculum of madrassas seems pretty clear that the number of madrassas would be an indicator of an increased perception of a conflict between science and Islam...

Salman Hameed said...

Yes, good points. My guess would be that the curriculum matches well with that of the public schools - rather with the madrassas. But its worth checking out.