The debate on madressah enrolment

Dawn, March 27, 2005
Education Edition
The debate on madressah enrolment
By Omar R. Quraishi

A recently released report funded by the World Bank and co-authored by an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has put a very different perspective on madressah enrolment in Pakistan than the generally prevalent view.

Titled Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data, the report by Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College, Jishnu Das of the World Bank and (assistant professor) Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Tristan Zajonc of Harvard University takes a detailed look at the number of students enrolled in Pakistani madressahs, examines their accuracy and comes to the conclusion that the data sharply contradicts the figures quoted in the press on just how many students are enrolled in Pakistan.

It says that articles in various international newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, have quoted figures for madressah enrolment in Pakistan that are much higher than what seems to be the reality. 'Religious School Enrolment in Pakistan' argues that the over-exaggeration of the figures is on a very big scale. It also cites a report on madressah education by a Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, saying that its figure of 33 per cent for the number of students enrolled in seminaries was quoted in six of eleven articles that appeared in international newspapers as interest in this subject grew after September 11, 2001.

The authors of the report say that given the sensitive nature of this issue, especially the link between the former Taliban rules of Afghanistan and seminaries and the current belief that such institutions are ideal breeding ground for extremists and terrorists, the issue of enrollment has surprisingly been given cursory treatment. Figures have been bandied about with little or no substantiation and in the absence of any verifiable data on actual enrolment figures.

"Given the importance placed on the subject by policy makers in Pakistan and those internationally, it is troubling that none of the reports and articles reviewed based their analysis on publicly available data or established statistical methodologies.

This paper uses published data sources and a census of schooling choice to show that existing estimates are inflated," the report says. The authors go on to claim that enrolment in madressahs in Pakistan accounts for "less than one percent of all enrolment in the country and there is no evidence of a dramatic increase in recent years".

To closely examine and try to grasp the estimates quoted in various newspaper articles and even in the ICG report, the authors say that when they examined school choice they could find no explanation that could fit the data. For example, one of the reasons cited to explain rising madressah enrolment is poverty or lack of other schooling options.

The authors, however, found that the data showed that among households with at least one child in a madressah, three-quarters send their "second (and/or third) child to a public or private school or both". They say "widely promoted theories, among them a growing preference for sending children to schools, simply do not explain this substantial variation within households" in Pakistan.

The report's authors say that the data available on the subject shows that 200,000 students are enrolled in madressahs full-time, a far cry from the 33 per cent of total student enrolment as claimed by the ICG or even a 10 per cent figure quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times article on the issue. Expressed as a ratio, the difference becomes even more stark, the authors say, pointing out that this means that a mere 0.3 per cent of all students between the ages of five and 19 are enrolled in a madressah.

However, since the enrolment rate for this age group is estimated to be 42 per cent, the number of students enrolled in a madressah expressed as a proportion of total student enrolment between the ages of 5-19 rises to 0.7 per cent, which is still a far cry from the kind of figures quoted in the international, and sometimes even national, newspapers. The report also concludes that there was no evidence of a "dramatic increase in madressah enrolment in recent years.

All this is in sharp contradiction to published newspaper reports on the issue, a reason that the authors cite in their report for undertaking the study. For example, an article in the Washington Post in July 2002 said that as many as 1.5 million schoolchildren were enrolled in madressahs in Pakistan. Even the 9/11 Commission report quoted the same high and unreliable figures when it discussed the issue of terrorism and ways and means to curb it by monitoring madressahs in countries like Pakistan.

The authors of 'Religious School Enrolment in Pakistan' further state that even in areas bordering Afghanistan, where the madressah enrolment is said to be relatively higher, the number of children in such institutions is a mere 7.5 per cent of total student enrolment.

In fact, if anything, recent debate and discourse on the state and quality of education in Pakistan, the writers of the study argue, has completely overlooked another important development: the rapid rise and availability of mainstream private schools. The report says that Pakistan's he report does acknowledge that the country's "educational landscape" has changed "substantially in the last decade" but points out that this is due to an "explosion of private schools", something which it says has been left out of the debate on education in Pakistan. The authors do acknowledge that the country's "educational landscape" has changed "substantially in the last decade" but point out that this is due to an "explosion of private schools", a phenomenon whose impact has both been largely ignored and underestimated.

The ICG, whose figure of 33 per cent was questioned by the World Bank-funded Harvard report, has come out in defence of its work. In fact, in a statement on its website, the ICG has accused the Harvard report of "juggling" numbers to prove its point. It says: "If the findings of this paper are to be taken at face value, then Pakistan and the international community have little cause to worry about an educational sector that glorifies jihad and indoctrinates Pakistani children in religious intolerance and extremism."

Clearly, this particular line of defence does not take away from the fact that the Harvard study is questioning the enrolment figure and is making a reasonably good case of putting doubts over the figures that have been mentioned on this issue in the media. What the ICG has implied, that there is a correlation between madressah education and rising intolerance and extremism, might not be wrong, but that does not seem to be what the Harvard report's authors are saying.

The ICG said that the report's main finding, that madressah enrolment is less than one per cent of all student enrolment between the ages of five and 19, is "directly at odds" with the education ministry's 2003 directory of madressahs, which says that the number of madressahs has increased from 6,996 in 2001 to 10,430. It says that madressah organizations have put the figure at 13,000 with total enrolment between 1.5-1.7 million. This is however not an official estimate, and the ministry's madressahs directory does not quote any exact enrolment figure either.

The ICG also quotes the religious affairs minister to dispute the figure claimed in the Asim Ijaz Khwaja et al report saying that the minister had publicly said that madressahs were imparting education to 1,000,000 children. However, no substantiation has been provided for this figure, either by the ICG or by the religious affairs ministry. In fact, the government's failure to press ahead with the madressah registration drive means that official figures on enrolment and even on the total number of madressahs might be misleading and inaccurate.

The ICG response also came in the form of criticism on the sources used by the authors of the Harvard study. Calling them (the sources) "questionable", the ICG said that the 1998 census was "highly controversial", that the household surveys were "neither designed nor conducted to elicit data on madressah enrolment" and that the authors had concentrated on rural areas, assuming that madressahs were more a rural phenomenon.

As far as the last point is concerned, the ICG does seem to have a valid objection because much of the rise in religiosity and with it in madressah enrolment has been seen in Pakistan's urban areas, especially the larger cities. However, the ICG is unable to explain how it came to the conclusion in its own report on religious education in Pakistan that up to a third of total student enrolment in the country was in madressahs.

Specifically speaking, the Harvard report's authors say that they looked at articles and reports: articles in mainstream American and international newspapers; reports and articles by American and international scholars affiliated with international think tanks, institutes, and the government (including the 9/11 Commission Report); and studies by Pakistani scholars working in Pakistan and abroad.

The report says that the sources for all these reports are either newspaper accounts of police estimates or interviews with policymakers and that not a single article tried to "validate these numbers using established data sources". The analysis showed that there was quite a vast range for the enrolment figure - varying between 500,000 and 1.5 million - and that this lack of inconsistency was sometimes found in the same newspaper. The newspapers that were examined included the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Times and the Washington Post from the period from January 2001 to June 2004.

The report noted that even a document as seemingly informed and important for US policymakers as the report of the 9/11 Commission made sweeping generalizations on the madressah enrolment issue by saying that "millions of families, especially those with little money, send their children to religious schools, or madressahs". It also quoted a senior police official in Karachi as saying that in the city alone, 200,000 children were studying in 859 madressahs.

Even the claim that "millions of families" send their children to such schools seems a bit far-fetched given that the number of household in the whole country, assuming a conservative estimate of six people per household, would be in the region of 25 million. The Harvard report also links the probable source for the inflated figures as two articles and the ICG report. The articles were by Jessica Stern in 2000 in Foreign Affairs, by Jonathan Singer in 2001 for the Brookings Institution, and the ICG report published in 2002. Stern said in her article that there were between 40,000 and 50,000 madressahs in Pakistan while Singer put the figure at 45,000, both without quoting a credible source or any data.

The ICG might be right in its criticism of the Harvard study in that it seems to overlook the increasing popularity of madressahs in Pakistan's urban areas. However, no substantiation is presented, other than reports collected from newspaper articles or quoting government or intelligence officials (all of these are uncorroborated by any official data), for the claim that madressah enrolment is what the ICG or the international press says it is.

It might be rising and it might be linked to the incidence of intolerance, bigotry and terrorism in this part of the world, but how many children are exactly enrolled in madressahs? Any conclusive or definitive answer to this question can be given only once the government undertakes its initially much-publicized and now much-delayed initiative on the registration of madressahs in the country.

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