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‘Compared with the scale of South Asia’s first wave, which peaked in September, the second is shocking. …South Asia is logging four times as many, and with hardly a sign of slowing.’ – An excerpt from the Economist article ‘India’s Covid-19 crisis has spiraled out of control’, published on May 3, 2021.

According to the same article, since around mid of March this year, new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Asia have sky rocketed – from less than 50,000 cases per week on seven-days moving average basis to currently closing in on the 400,000 mark. Moreover, in terms of how deep the pandemic is likely to last specifically for developing countries, given very low inoculation rates here, mainly on the back of scarce availability of vaccines to the global south overall, a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article ‘BioNTech founders expect Covid-19 pandemic to last until mid-2022’ pointed out: ‘The surge of coronavirus infections in developing countries such as India amid a relative scarcity of vaccine supply means that the pandemic will keep spreading until mid-2022, according to the inventors of the first Covid-19 vaccine authorized in the West.’

The education ministry in Pakistan recently postponed secondary and higher secondary school examinations to later this year in October. At the same time, it did not allow O/A level students the choice provided otherwise by the school certificate awarding educational institutions like Cambridge University to not appear in exams postponed to October, and rather opt for being assessed on the internal grades provided by schools. In a recent interview, the federal education minister Shafqat Mahmood argued that last year there were a lot of cases of fake/inflated grades, which became the reason for him and provincial education ministers to only opt for results through exams in the later cycle in October this year.

This is quite in contrast to the decision taken by other developing countries in the region, like Nepal and Bangladesh, which have allowed students the choice to opt for School-Assessed Grades (SAGs), and not take exams in October. While the claim that corrupt practices were actively involved in last academic year’s assessments in a number of schools for O/A levels, which are otherwise mostly highly competitive private schools with high educational standards, and whose results are confidently used by school certificate-providing universities like Cambridge University, where these universities take into account even during normal times a student’s performance record from school while reaching his/her subject-wise O/A level grade percentiles, the claim of significantly high employment of corrupt practices in awarding grades, have yet to be backed up with specific examples where such instances were found by the education ministry/departments of the country.

Short of this, such claims run a strong risk of wrongly damaging the reputation of schools in the country that prepare students for these exams. Hence, it makes virtually no sense as to why such low confidence was internalized in decision-making that did not allow students the option of SAGs, unless corruption-related claims could be established by education ministry/ departments for a significant proportion of such assessments from last academic year. On the face of it though, it appears quite strange as to how much different school performance/ standards could be between many other developing countries in the region and Pakistan, whereby they could offer students the option of SAGs, and the same could not be provided here. This thing should be quickly resolved so that a revised outlook with the ministry could perhaps enable students to graduate to new classes in the current academic cycle through the SAGs option. They must be enabled to avoid losing time unnecessarily and opportunities in terms of admissions abroad, and related scholarships.

At the same time, one wonders then as to what forms the basis of confidence by the education ministers that exams could take place in October even, given skyrocketing infection rates in South Asia in recent months, and very low inoculation rates up till now and in terms of numerous forecasts for developing countries, including Pakistan, along with coming to fore many Covid-variants already challenging the efficacy of vaccines landed here so far, and also numerous studies, including one by Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and the remark made by BioNTech founders hinting towards prolonged presence of the pandemic in developing countries, for not just months but years. Hence, the education ministry should ask itself, if it had not already, as to how long can the exams be postponed if they could still not take place in the October cycle? Therefore, given pandemic-related highly uncertain times, it is hoped that the education ministry and education departments will likely review decision with regard to provision of option of SAGs to O/A level students, so that they do not lose time, and associated academic opportunities.

At the same time, the exams for matriculation and intermediate also stand postponed, and the students similarly run the risk of losing on time. In the same interview, the education minister said that while last year students were assessed based on the results from the year before, no such option was available this year, as exams were still to be held. This shows a serious lack of policy response of education ministry/departments in terms of creative effort, especially during a serious crisis in the shape of the current pandemic. In the likely absence of confidence in school assessments by the ministry/departments for these exams, one wonders as to why the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) could not be tasked to conduct half-yearly exams under its supervision, given low infection rates in the country during the end of last, and the initial months of this year. Such exams could have provided the needed base to assess students on that basis, for the whole current academic year. The otherwise uncertain times of the pandemic did provide this opportunity for a number of months to education ministry/departments to conduct these exams, but this was not taken, and now students’ current academic year exams stand postponed.

Hence, on one hand, the ministry/departments in an unsubstantiated sense up till now, went against the current followed by many developed and developing countries in the shape of not providing O/A level students the opportunity of SAGs, and on the other, not reaching a baseline half-yearly BISE based results for matric/intermediate students; and in both cases, students have suffered mental torture at the hands of indecisive ministry/departments with regard to exams.

The education ministry and departments have serious questions to answer to both the Prime Minister, and any inquiry committee thus formed in this regard. Perhaps, in case he did not, the PM should have sought more clarity on these issues earlier from the education ministry/departments, and lack of innovative approach in this important sector could have at least faced the same sense of urgency and intervention from PM as was seen in relation to, for example, finance/economic ministries where ministers were frequently changed due to their ‘lackluster’ performance. At least this writer has not observed the same kind of dynamism of PM from media reports with regard to issues facing the education sector. In any case, when inquiries could take place for example in the case of wheat, sugar, and petroleum products’ prices, they could also take place for a very important subject in the shape of education sector, to unearth as to why more than five million students are in the crisis they currently find themselves in, and which they have been going through for a number of months now.

(The writer holds PhD in Economics from the University of Barcelona; he previously worked at International Monetary Fund)

He tweets@omerjaved7

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Dr Omer Javed

The writer holds a PhD in Economics degree from the University of Barcelona, and has previously worked at the International Monetary Fund. His contact on ‘X’ (formerly ‘Twitter’) is @omerjaved7

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