Pakistan’s Higher Education Horizon Holds out Hope

By Ali Imran 

WASHINGTON, Sep 26: It may come as a surprise to the outside world that Pakistan, a country trying to grapple with the nettlesome challenge of militancy and weathering almost daily bloody retaliatory bombings, has a hopeful story to tell in the field of higher education.

 Feeding on the daily diet of global media’s often slanted focus on the Afghan conflict-related controversies, it would be hard for people to believe that Pakistan has built a higher education edifice that is brightening the country’s prospects in wide-ranging fields.

 Dr Javaid Leghari, chairman of the Higher Education Commission, a federal body tasked with steering Pakistan’s progress towards quality higher learning, said at the George Mason University that the country has experienced a sea-change in the field since 2002, when its budget was increased manifold.

 “We are trying to equip our people with education and skills that commensurate with the country’s development requirements,” to he told the university’s leadership that included Peter Stearn, Provost, Annie Hunt, Global Education, Scott Martin, Assistant Dean for Technology, BG Buddy Beck and Sheikh Siddique, both members of the Board of Visitors.

 The George Mason University leaders keenly followed the presentation, sought answers to a series of questions about academic excellence, and appreciated the HEC’s transformative role and its efforts towards realizing a knowledge-based economy for Pakistan.

 Leghari’s power point presentation revealed some startling facts and figures: the number of university campuses in Pakistan has increased from 168 to 258 including the establishment of 41 new universities under a strict set of criteria; the number of internationally accepted quality research publications and journals has risen phenomenally to thousands each year; the campuses throughout the country have accesses to top quality international research papers through a network of virtual library; student enrollment at universities has rocketed from 330,000 to over a million, the increase in the percentage of women enrolment in the universities has swelled from 36% to 46%; and so on and so forth.

Photo by Asim Siddiqui for MGCT

The change is not only felt palpably in the air with the arrival of acclaimed faculty from abroad on attractive salary packages but also physically the emergence of state-of-the-art laboratories, libraries and campus buildings are infusing a new spirit to the intellectual environment.

Another heartwarming aspect has been the strict criterion that the HEC follows while awarding doctoral scholarships to the best the brightest students. Since secretaries of provincial education ministries are part of the process, the process leaves little room for discrimination, he said.

Over these years, the Commission has awarded more than 10,000 local and foreign scholarships through a well-defined and transparent mechanism that had made no compromise on merit, the HEC says.

More encouragingly, around 2,000 scholarships have been awarded to the talented youth of Balochistan, which has seen political unrest in recent years and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where people have borne the brunt of al-Qaeda linked terror as well as American drone strikes.

Still more promising has been the establishment of a university in Swat, where Pakistani forces fought off a feisty Taliban insurgency a couple of years ago.

 And in Balochistan, the first ever women-only university in Quetta has elicited a tremendous response from the society with female students enrolling in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past.

As a result of decade-long sustained focus, six Pakistani universities are now ranked among the top 300 universities in Asia, which means that the Pakistani universities, which stood nowhere about a decade ago, have competed with thousands of institutions of higher learning in countries like China, India and South Korea.

 Two Pakistani universities are now ranked among the top 300 sciences and technology institutions of the world.

 But, for the HEC, the sailing has not been smooth in terms of finances as well as competing views on its administrative controls. The Pakistani intellectuals, scientists and scholars have fought against some politicians’ suggestions that the strategic institutions be devolved to provinces. Thankfully, the 18th Constitutional Amendment has saved the day for all.

 Similarly, Leghari, former chairman Dr Atta ur Rehman and those who profoundly know the value and relevance of higher learning to a country’s economic development in the fast-paced information-driven world have fought the case to keep finances flow to the organization.

 Javed Leghari also addressed a gathering at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

 He arged that Pakistan’s recent investment in higher education promises to step up the country’s economic development and overcome challenges like extremism, poverty and insecurity.

 Leghari minced no words in identifying problems afflicting the country’s education system as well as the potential dangers from violent extremism, unemployment in the face of fast-growing population but said the ten-year-old Higher Education Commission stands out as a beacon of hope.

 “Pakistan needs to grow its GDP at a minimum of 7 per cent every year for a long time to come in order to battle poverty and make best use of its youth bulge – and for that to happen Pakistan must increase its portion of GDP spending on education from the current dismal level of 2.3 percent,” he said at the interactive session, moderated by Asia Program Director Robert Hathaway.

Leghari informed that currently a record number of Pakistanis are pursuing PhD degrees in foreign countries.

The number of genuine research papers and periodicals and students accomplishing PhDs in various fields have moved up steeply over the past years but still the country must persist with higher levels of financial infusion into higher education system in order to come at par with other comparable knowledge-based economies.

Besides the Pakistani federal government, the HEC works in collaboration with and support of foreign educational institutions and organizations like USAID to sustain its work, which has also won international recognition.

Pakistan is also the biggest current beneficiary of the United States’ Fulbright scholarship program.

 At the same time, Leghari was candid in acknowledging the fact that focus on higher education alone will not help Pakistan overcome wide-ranging challenges and catch up with the highly developed and industrialized nations.

 He noted that education at primary and high school levels – a responsibility of provincial governments – will also be crucial to the country’s future prospects and suggested the formation of a lower education commission to fix the system at the grassroots level.

 He argued at the event that education in science and technology helps develop mindset of people in societies and serve as antidote to extremist trends.

For its part, the HEC is encouraging critical thinking and advances in scientific and technological areas by awarding scholarships to students and ensuring top quality education at campuses.

 Work and expertise in technological and social sciences helps foster transnational linkages, hones skills, and gives rise to ingenuity, innovation and creativity, he said.

 Simultaneously, at a broader plane, higher education helps create a cross-cultural community, encourages integration and builds bridges of understanding and mutual tolerance.

 Higher education makes people global citizens, he added, while making the case for consistent Pakistan focus and financial support on higher education advancement.

 My take from his presentations:

 “We need to invest much more in books than in bullets, we have had enough of weapons already in the world. It is going to be a combination of technology, talent, and tolerance that would determine the success of nations more than anything else. We need strategic thinking to make up for the lost time and then succeed, we need it right now.”

 

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