Pakistan’s new government must wake up to the education emergency

Young people are leaving the country in droves yet no political party is committed to reforming higher education, says Asghar Zaidi

April 26, 2024
Pakistani commuters climb on a crowded public transport vehicle in Karachi, to illustrate 'State of emergency'
Source: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP / Getty Images

Every year, a significant number of young Pakistanis embark on journeys abroad. What motivates this mass exodus, particularly among the educated demographic? The answer lies in the pursuit of a brighter tomorrow – one marked by superior education and promising employment opportunities.

Among other reasons, the decision to seek opportunities overseas stems from the lack of satisfactory higher education standards at home. Despite having acquired degrees domestically, many graduates face a stark reality of limited job opportunities, prompting them to explore foreign shores where educational and professional avenues are more plentiful.

Moreover, Pakistan’s volatile economic and political landscape, coupled with rising unemployment and inflation rates, further exacerbates the problem. In such trying circumstances, it’s no wonder that a considerable portion of our talent wishes to settle abroad permanently, abandoning the homeland in pursuit of better prospects.

This brain drain poses a significant challenge to Pakistan’s socio-economic development. Rather than losing our brightest minds to foreign lands, it is imperative for the government to harness the potential of our youth, to tap the so-called demographic dividend. This necessitates not only improving the standards of higher education but also creating an environment conducive to retaining talent and leveraging their skills for national progress.

But examining the election manifestos and educational priorities outlined by the four major political parties in the lead-up to this year’s disputed parliamentary election, one might observe a concerning lack of detailed insights, leaving doubts as to whether these parties will uphold their commitments.

Among the educational priorities outlined by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), there is a pledge to increase the base budget for higher education by 0.5 per cent, alongside a commitment for 30 per cent of those of typical university age to enrol in higher education, up from the current 13 per cent.

Similarly, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has proposed allocating 4 per cent of gross domestic product to education. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) both increase this to 5 per cent, while the PPP also aims to dedicate an additional 0.1 per cent to research and development.

JI emphasises a boost in funding for science and technology and the Higher Education Commission. It also aspires to establish 50 new universities and technical colleges, as well as advocating for segregated education for males and females, and offering interest-free loans to students, primarily benefiting those pursuing higher education.

While there is discussion about augmenting the education budget, it appears that none of the political administrations is truly committed to its earnest implementation. And although certain aspects pertaining to education are outlined in the manifestos, the absence of pledges for the establishment of thinktanks and the dearth of policy papers addressing higher education are conspicuous.

Since 2010 and the passing of the 18th amendment to the country’s constitution, education in Pakistan has been a provincial matter. However, it is paradoxical that despite this decentralisation, the majority of funding for public sector universities still comes from the federal Higher Education Commission. If we are to address the challenges in higher education effectively, it is imperative to grant greater autonomy to provincial educational authorities.

The current system of coordination, monitoring and accountability has introduced new complexities in the governance of higher education. Continuous budget cuts, government interference and bureaucratic dominance over academic leadership have exacerbated the challenges faced by higher education institutions. The absence of permanent vice-chancellors in the majority of universities – caused by a stall in recruitment since the start of the caretaker government in August – has worsened the situation, leading to a deterioration in the quality of education and academic standards. It seems that political leaders are more interested in bureaucracy than they are in global, quality education experts.

Amid the challenges, there are bright spots. Pakistan’s higher education sector boasts esteemed institutions such as Government College University Lahore, Lahore University of Management Sciences, National University of Sciences and Technology, Institute of Business Administration - Karachi and Habib University. These institutions lead the charge in enhancing educational standards and driving research initiatives, and by recognising and capitalising on these strengths, we can pave the way for socio-economic growth.

But urgent action is needed. Pakistan should declare an education emergency and overhaul all levels of education, particularly in the fields of science and technology, with the guidance of international experts. Reforms aligned with global trends and involving the elimination of political interference are crucial steps forward.

Substantial changes to curriculum development and academic training are imperative, too. Moreover, strengthening the connection between education and employment outcomes is vital for ensuring that graduates are equipped for success in the job market.

In essence, addressing Pakistan’s educational challenges requires concerted efforts by the new eight-party coalition, including bold reforms and a steadfast commitment to nurturing talent among young people.

Asghar Zaidi is honorary adviser of Crescent Model Higher Secondary School in Lahore. He was vice-chancellor of Government College University Lahore from 2019 to 2023.

Browse the full results of the Asia University Rankings 2024.

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