Many experts contend that resolving Pakistan's various challenges will require making significant improvements to the country's troubled schools. Indeed, acknowledges Sabiha Mansoor, the education system in Pakistan is "bleak." Drop-out rates are high, teachers are poorly trained, and adult literacy rates are less than 50 percent. Yet at the same time, the country has a "window of opportunity": One-third of the country's population is between 17 and 33 years old. If these young people can be properly educated, and can make significant contributions to the economy, then great benefits can accrue for Pakistan.
At an April 7 Asia Program event co-sponsored with the Program on America and the Global Economy, Mansoor, the Wilson Center's Pakistan Scholar and dean of the School of Education at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, spoke about higher education in Pakistan—particularly about recently passed reforms and her vision for improving faculty development.
During the last 10 years, Pakistan has launched a series of higher education reforms, with two major aims. One is to improve access to higher education by increasing student enrollment. This objective has enjoyed a measure of success: Student enrollment in public and private institutions increased from 475,000 in 2001 to nearly 750,000 in 2007-08.
Attaining the other goal—improving the quality of higher education, particularly by increasing the number of faculty with doctorates—has been a different story. According to Mansoor, Pakistan has struggled to establish a strong pool of Ph.D. graduates. Nearly as many Pakistanis pursue their doctorates abroad as those who do so in Pakistan. Great numbers of those abroad do not return to Pakistan, and many of those undertaking doctoral studies in Pakistan never complete them. Mansoor cited findings from a recent survey she conducted of Pakistanis pursuing doctoral degrees in Pakistan and abroad, noting that those abroad said there were few opportunities for them in Pakistan, while those in Pakistan complained of a lack of courses, difficulties securing supervisors, and problems accessing online resources.
Additionally, general efforts to improve faculty development have lagged. Teacher education initiatives in Pakistan mainly target instructors in primary and secondary education, and not in higher education. Most Pakistani degree colleges (institutions that confer only bachelor's degrees) do not offer faculty development programs at all.
Mansoor offered several recommendations to ameliorate this situation. One is to focus on strengthening non-doctoral programs—such as M.Phil. programs—that still enhance faculty development by instilling in students the basics of pedagogy. She also emphasized the importance of "innovative measures." Because Pakistan's security situation prevents U.S. scholars from studying in Pakistan, the Internet should be exploited to foster exchanges between American scholars and their Pakistani counterparts. Yet ultimately, Mansoor said, Pakistan must recognize the vitality of building sustainability in its indigenous higher education programs. Sending Pakistanis abroad for their doctorates is an unsustainable strategy and amounts to little more than "crisis management."
The first commentator, Hamid Kizilbash of the American Institutes for Research, argued that Pakistan's government has never emphasized the importance of quality education, much less of higher education. In fact, ever since the 1960s, the relatively few young people who have decided to pursue careers in education have essentially been told that "your work is not important." Kizilbash recalled that people "made fun" of him decades ago when he announced his intention to become an educationist. He concluded that the "great majority" of Pakistanis "were never meant" to have educational opportunities. The reason for this, in his view, is that the government has always perceived students as a "threat" to its ability to rule as it wishes.
The second commentator, Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation, discussed how Pakistan's education challenges are also the world's education challenges. Just as Pakistan's government-run degree colleges are in worse shape than the country's private universities, the world is experiencing a similar "gap" between public and private education. Similarly, rising rates of unemployed graduates are seen not just in Pakistan, but also in the United States, where there is talk of "mismatches" between education and employment. Many graduates, he said, do not learn the "practical skills" that are necessary to be competitive in job markets. He emphasized the need—in Pakistan and elsewhere—for more training in important non-education sectors such as textiles, shipbuilding, and construction.
Mansoor argued that despite all the challenges and obstacles, there is hope for education in Pakistan. "When winter is here, can spring be far behind?" she asked early in her presentation. Both commentators offered reasons for optimism as well. Kizilbash acknowledged that despite the lack of efforts to educate Pakistan's masses, the number of universities in the country has increased from one (in 1947) to 134 today. And Khanna argued that the $1.5 billion in annual non-military aid for Pakistan made available by recently passed U.S. congressional legislation can be very helpful in "filling gaps" in technical skills for employment—skills that Pakistan "really needs."
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program