South Asian higher education: At a crossroads

While at a critical junction, South Asia is struggling to make higher education a matter of national interest.

Anum Pasha August 19, 2013
The writer is a freelance journalist and a development communications specialist currently engaged with a donor-funded economic development programme in Lahore

One of the poorest and most heavily-populated regions of the world, South Asia, struggles to keep up with its increasing demand for higher education, which is not being met according to a recent report by the Economist Intelligent Unit, commissioned by the British Council and circulated at the first of the six-part series of the British Council’s Global Education Dialogues: South Asia Series in Colombo this summer. Pakistan’s higher education landscape faces a multitude of challenges similar to its neighbouring countries, albeit standing out as one of the only two countries in the region where private sector education is playing a significant role.

With private universities emerging in the mid-1980s, Pakistan is a unique example of a system that dropped its dependence on public funding and universities were encouraged to generate their own funds. Country Director British Council Pakistan Peter Upton put forward an important question at the dialogue: is higher education a private commodity, given the decline in state funding?

In Pakistan’s case, experts must examine whether injecting funds and expansion of higher education is concurrently improving university performance, institutional capacities and academic quality. Neighbouring India makes a mental note: “There has been remarkable progress in the number of colleges and student enrollment, but there are concerns for quality and regulation,” Professor Furqan Qamar, vice-chancellor Central University of Himachal Pradesh, stated at the policy dialogue.

While women’s education is fast becoming a major concern in South Asia’s economic development agenda, hats off to Pakistan for the highest percentage of female students as a percentage of the total tertiary enrolment, in comparison with other countries in the region. Still, Pakistan needs to encourage more female participation in higher education.

Pakistan’s education scenario has been marred by political instability, natural disasters, conflict and obvious lack of health, infrastructure and labour markets, like most other countries in the region. For this reason, higher education competes with other areas for funding and the government struggles to allocate due respect to this area. Moreover, it is observed that foreign donors are mostly interested in primary and secondary education and thus, higher education suffers. But Professor Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, chief executive officer at the Higher Education Commission, begs to differ and favours the government, “It is a good time in higher education sector. The government realises that higher education is important.”

Some of the themes prevalent at the dialogue included student experiences, access and quality of higher education, graduate employability, and overseas delivery models. Professor Clive Mulholland, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of South Wales, spoke about the student experience and how it is evolving; institutions are designing a system based on their own experiences — and not the students’ experiences. This requires managing a student experience for young guns who are always connected and looking for instant gratification, like online support services.

Mulholland also observed that very few attendees were ‘live tweeting’ the event at #EducateSAsia, even while more than 70 per cent of the participants owned a smartphone. Times are changing and higher education needs to catch up, especially in a country like Pakistan where an increasing number of students are getting on the internet every day.

While at a critical junction, South Asia is struggling to make higher education a matter of national interest. Foreign participation is growing but international models can’t be fully adopted in South Asia given the sociocultural environment and specific needs of the region.

To this end, issues related to governance, access, capacity building, quality, and politicisation remain key constraints. The tragic reality, especially in Pakistan, is that higher education is still not the main priority of governments and markets, posing a threat to our global positioning and causing a great urgency.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2013.

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gp65 | 8 years ago | Reply @Asad: " But I can’t understand why people are talking about ‘bomb blasts’ in relation to women’s education." People are talking about the fact that hundreds of girls schools in FATA and KPK are destroyed by terrorists through bomb blasts. If this does not impact women's education by denying basic access and intimidating parents from sending girls to school, it is unclear what else does.
Ali Tanoli | 8 years ago | Reply

@np I don't what to say but lot of peoples don't believe us when we say we are indian I am not talking lower Pakistan but upper Pakistan in north west of area.......

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