Cash rewards for academic achievement: well-intentioned but ultimately misguided

In recent months, a number of stories have surfaced about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds securing top positions in local exams. Now there is no denying the achievements of these students or that they deserve appreciation for it. However, the nature of the rewards being handed out to them certainly raises questions about their actual purpose.

There is the case of Revtash Kumar from Rahim Yar Khan, the son of a shoemaker, who obtained the top position in this year’s Matric exam. Revtash was awarded Rs 5 lakh and has been promised that all his educational expenses will be borne by the federal government. Then there is Mohammad Mohsen Ali who works at a tandoor and has topped the Punjab University BA exam.  In addition to a scholarship to do his MA in English from Punjab University, Mohsen has also been awarded Rs 1 million each by Chief Minister Punjab as well as by PM Ashraf. CM Punjab even went so far as to gift him a house.

To a certain extent, these rewards seem to be politically motivated. Such stories make great news, and so why not attempt to gain some publicity out of it? In Mohsen’s case, both the PM and CM Punjab scrambled to hand out cash awards. The Sharifs have gone completely overboard, first with the house and now giving out a laptop and a car to the Intermediate exam topper.

These high achievers definitely deserve to be awarded the scholarships that they have been. However, I am ambivalent about the cash and other rewards that have been given to them. For one, this is public money that is being handed out. But then after all, our rulers treat public money as their private funds and do whatever they feel like with it on whim. The question is, how beneficial are these monetary rewards for the students in the longer run? In a few years time, a “where are they now” exercise needs to be carried out to determine this.

Another massive waste of public money in the guise of rewarding “deserving” students is the trips to European countries organized by the Punjab government. Recently a group of 41 position-holder intermediate students visited Cambridge, just one of their many stops across Europe. First-hand accounts from the Cambridge students who met with them only reflect on the sheer futility of these trips, which the Punjab government proudly promotes as educational in nature. The first issue is the enormous amount of funds spent on taking 41 kids on a month long trip. Other random government officials also benefit from this fully funded trip around Europe. Just airfare alone amounts to more than Rs 10 millon. Add to this stays at pricey hotels, food, travel within and across countries as well as daily allowances, and what you have is a huge amount of public funds being thrown away in an image-building exercise.

Interaction with these students revealed that they are in desperate need of counselling. They are clearly way behind their counterparts studying at good schools in the country. Some alarming stories about this group include one student having no idea what LUMS is, and another who stated that she does not use the internet much as she considers it a waste of time. They mentioned that they couldn’t understand the accents of people giving them a tour and were essentially just sight-seeing. What purpose does such an expensive trip serve if these children lack even basic awareness about Pakistani universities or the importance of the internet in today’s day and age?

A government funded leisure trip is merely a publicity gimmick and a waste of public money by the laptop-distributing Punjab government. And likewise are the recent cash rewards to the matric, intermediate and BA toppers. Sure, there’s a lot the students can do with this money. It will help them in considerably improving their standard of living (a car is still completely unnecessary). But the government needs to do more than hand out money.

What is essential here is to guide and counsel these bright students about career options as well as soft skills. They are part of the many intelligent, hard-working kids in Pakistan whose potential unfortunately goes untapped. Mentoring and  coaching them about possible fields of study and career paths is what will ultimately determine what these haalaat kay maaray students go on to achieve in future. And it is exactly this which is missing in the politicized scramble to hand out the biggest prize.

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