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15th Jul 2013

Pakistan boosts education funding but students still anxious about the future

Last May’s election in Pakistan was an historic event, marking not only a transition to a new government led by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) but also the first time in the country’s history that one democratically elected government has ceded power to another. The change in government seems as well to have triggered some notable shifts with respect to policy and funding, after years marked by declining budgets and a previous policy direction to devolve authority for education from the central Higher Education Commission (HEC) to the provinces. The HEC (formerly the University Grant Commission) is the primary regulatory agency for higher education in Pakistan. Under the previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) administration, the agency had seen its autonomous status revoked as it was brought under the authority of the Ministry of Professional and Technical Training in 2012. The Commission also saw its budget reduced from Rs 22 billion in 2009 to Rs 15 billion in 2012 - that is, from roughly US $220 million to US $150 million. Further, as University World News reported recently:

“Large portions of approved money were also denied during the past five years, leading to numerous mass protests.”

In contrast to the declines of recent years, the new Pakistani government has announced a nearly 23% increase in the higher education development budget for this year, restoring some of the earlier funding reductions to bring the 2013 budget to Rs 18.5 billion (US $185 million). The funds will be administered by the HEC, and used to support investments in scholarships, the development of new universities, research, and improving facilities and infrastructure at government-owned higher education institutions. The development budget is accompanied by an additional allocation of Rs 39 billion (US $390 million) to support the base operating costs for Pakistan’s publicly funded universities. The increased funding has raised the hopes of educators in Pakistan that the new government is prepared to strengthen higher education in the country. Masoom Yasinzai, the vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, recently commented to University World News:

“It is not only a financial increase but also shows that the present government is going to take a different stand on higher education compared with the previous political regime, during which the HEC remained under constant threat of abolition and was punished with budgetary cuts every year.”

Pakistan's population growth

If the new government is indeed more invested in the future of Pakistan’s post-secondary system, it is likely a direction borne of the country’s startling demographics. In his June budget speech, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar noted a significant increase in post-secondary participation in Pakistan over the next year alone:

“Enrolment in higher education will increase from 1.08 million students in 2012-13 to 1.23 million students in 2013-14, showing an increase of 14% in the population of students pursuing higher education.”

With a population of about 180 million, Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country but also home to a strikingly young and increasingly urban society. Two-thirds of the population are under the age of 30, and half are under 20 years old. By 2060, Pakistan’s population is projected to be 285 million. A rapidly growing, youthful population, most observers agree, brings with it an array of challenges but some truly compelling opportunities as well. A recent item in The Diplomat makes the point clearly:

“Demographers often speak of the ‘dividend’ that can result from this youth-heavy population. If, they argue, these kids are properly educated and incorporated into the workforce (and particularly into burgeoning high-growth sectors like IT), then Pakistan’s sputtering economy could truly take off - and perhaps, in time, even replicate the economic triumphs of India.”

The British Council picks up the theme in a related post:

“Pakistan currently has a tremendous opportunity to progress through its ‘demographic dividend’... A huge generation of young people is now entering the workforce. However, this demographic opportunity will close around 2045, by which time the society will be ageing rapidly.”

Pakistan's youth perspective

At a moment of such historic opportunity, it is especially worrying that Pakistan’s young people appear to have profound concerns about their safety, career prospects, and national institutions. New research from The British Council shows that:

“An overwhelming 94% of youth in Pakistan now think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Only one in five are hoping that their economic position will improve in the next year. Pessimism is becoming a defining trait of this generation, one that holds up across the genders and urban and rural populations.”

The British Council study also suggests that 72% of young people feel they are less safe in Pakistan than in the past. This perception is borne out by the 2013 results for the Global Peace Index, a worldwide ranking based on more than 20 quantitative and qualitative factors, in which Pakistan ranks a distant 157 out of 162 countries in the Index. The British Council report also finds that Pakistani youth and young adults are plagued by concerns about access to career opportunities, and, in particular, the ability of the Pakistani economy to generate enough jobs for its burgeoning population:

“Only 10% of the youth feel the country has enough jobs to go around (of the women only 5% feel the same). Overall, just one in ten have full-time contracted jobs (in China 40% have it in the [18-to-29-year-old] demographic).”

In an apparent recognition of these low participation rates, the Pakistani government has announced a new skills development programme, with funding for training and internships and targeted to professions and trades in which students can become self-employed. Along the same line, the government has also unveiled a new small business loan programme to promote self-employment among younger people. Even with the government’s recent moves to strengthen investment in higher education in Pakistan, and so to accommodate a growing population of students in the nation’s universities, these same factors are likely to continue to fuel strong demand for study and work abroad among Pakistani students. Observers in the field have noted that factors such as the possibility of permanent residence, ability to work abroad during studies, and international employability weigh heavily in the study abroad decisions of Pakistani students. And while students from Pakistan have historically favoured leading destinations such as the US and the UK, there is increasing evidence that they are looking for new options, whether in response to more stringent visa requirements or simply to explore more affordable options.

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