Is higher education worth it?

In an agro-based economy, our focus on higher education in food, water sciences, textile studies is completely absent

Hussain Nadim February 20, 2015
The writer is Special Assistant to Federal Minister at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms. He tweets @HNadim87

There was a time, perhaps during our parents’ generation, when the higher education meant two to three years of acquiring a quality Bachelor’s degree. Moreover, the majority would seek a professional degree; two to three years of LLB or an engineering degree, and only the class-toppers would take up a five-year medical degree. The result? Students were graduating from universities between the ages of 19 to 22 and entering into the workforce at an early age, allowing ample time to settle in their professional lives and contribute to the economy, mostly through their own ventures — an entrepreneurial culture was common.

The trend, however, took a shift in the 1990s with the American way of doing things becoming widespread and Pakistan looking up to the US as a model for economic growth. Moreover, with opening up of multinational companies (MNC), the privileged class being able to inject foreign degrees into the local market, Pakistan dangerously tried to experiment with the American style of higher education — a shift away from the British education system that we inherited after independence.

With an economically out-of-context and misplaced American model of higher education becoming the standard in Pakistan, higher education in the country started to evolve into serious academic studies: a four-year Bachelor’s degree with double the financial burden and two extra years in college. Higher education, people thought, meant better skills, and perhaps better chances of getting good jobs for the amount of money that was being spent. However, with time it was realised that higher education didn’t mean higher learning, and didn’t guarantee a return on investment — graduating students struggled to find jobs.

What was not realised is that the American model of higher education that we adopted was geared to prepare American students for a career in corporate and services sectors after the US underwent industrialisation and corporate America developed deep roots. It absorbed graduate students and innovated through competition in business, which led to a massive requirement of researchers allowing doctorate studies to flourish. Higher education was necessitated by an economic need, not the other way around as in Pakistan, where higher education has been forced without an economic infrastructure to sustain the burden.

The gold rush of ‘higher education’ in Pakistan led to countless graduating with BA degrees. In less than a decade, a Bachelor’s degree became so commonplace that it had to be coupled with an additional degree because local companies and MNCs could not absorb all the graduating students — a Bachelor’s degree did not qualify as higher education anymore as we entered into the era of the MBA boom. The market flooded with MBAs in hopes that it will guarantee a placement at top MNCs, only to realise this wasn’t the case. Similarly, the exponential rise of PhD-holders with no link to local economic needs eventually reduced them to teachers instead of researchers who could add value to the economy.

Our higher education, and the idea attached to it, has gone haywire. In an agro-based economy, our focus on higher education in food and water sciences, or in textile studies is completely absent. Instead, Master’s and doctorate students in humanities are pouring into the job market only to find themselves not only ‘old’ in age but also irrelevant to our economy. MBAs are knocking on the doors of MNCs, not realising that Pakistan doesn’t have the corporate structure to cope with their influx.

The solution to this conundrum is fairly simple: establish a link between the job market and higher education, and focus and spend more on vocational training and professional certification, specifically on innovation in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

Pakistan may have missed its ‘moment’ of conventional industrialisation, with our graduates spending more time in college with higher financial burdens, and we may have lost our entrepreneurial culture in the process. The advantage that we do have is a youth bulge, and that is a huge potential that must be steered in the right direction of skill-based trainings and entrepreneurship in order for Pakistan to avail its fair share of the cake from the knowledge and innovation revolution. That is perhaps our only chance to build a strong, deep-rooted industrial base that can create enough jobs for enough graduates.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st,  2015.

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Inzar Gul | 6 years ago | Reply Years of alleged academic rigour in the social sciences has prevented the author from pursuing a more quantitative approach to the topic. Had he looked at the numbers, the Pakistani population around at the time of his parent's generation was much smaller and the educational infrastructure adequate to handle the number of aspiring students. Entrepreneurism was not the prevalent notion as the state had a much bigger stake in everything and tended to dominate employment and not the other way round. Pakistan has moved on from his parents and Ahsan Iqbal sahab's time (obvious side effect of nepotism in our government, kids hired on the basis of connections aren't original enough and end up regurgitating what they're told by their benefactors...) - higher education has a multi-disciplinary approach and yields disruptive innovations which are very hard to predict. Necessity is the mother of invention, if pursuing degrees in food/water sciences and textile studies ensures jobs everyone would be pursuing them. The sad reality is that the quality of higher education in Pakistan is sub-par for most cases and the skill-less graduate lacks abilities to serve his/her employer or make it out on their own as an entrepreneur.
Imran Asghar | 6 years ago | Reply Spot on. Great article that brings out a major issue in our higher education system. One of the best authors at ET.
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