Is higher education worth it?

Published: February 21, 2015
The writer is Special Assistant to Federal Minister at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms. He tweets @HNadim87

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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Reader Comments (12)

  • Toticalling
    Feb 21, 2015 - 2:17AM

    I am not sure how the author compares the values of last generation to those of today and call it american style education. In good old days we had only jobs available as drs, engineers and lawyers. Now the possibilities have increased to get education in business administration, computer sciences journalism and more which are just as important and rewarding than anything else. It has nothing to do with American ways. As it is India has advanced much more in this modern form of education and have in fact taken over lead in many parts of the world. There are more opportunities in other fields than just the three the author mentioned. There is nothing constant but change and this change is opening our horizons much more than before. Let us forget about yesteryears and concentrate about more promising tomorrowRecommend

  • Woz Ahmed
    Feb 21, 2015 - 4:15AM

    I recently graduated and struggled find a job with my degree.

    I have family in South Africa and Turkey, but neither recognised my degree.

    I am working in Rwanda and even they are reevaluating immigration policies and the value of Pakistanis degreesRecommend

  • Anwar
    Feb 21, 2015 - 4:52AM

    This guy is really immature. I have tried to read him a few times, but he seems to be only getting worse in servitude of Ahsan Iqbal. He has simplistic and childish solutions for everything, and with such people at the helm of ‘Planning and Development’ in Pakistan, God help this country and its people.Recommend

  • Zain
    Feb 21, 2015 - 5:40AM

    Very accurate analysis. Majority of Pakistani population lives in rural village areas and small towns surrounded by abandoned farms and agricultural lands. The population in these areas which does get a chance to attend college have no option but to consider a BA in fine arts or humanity or other fields that does not provide them with any job skills. Instead if the colleges and Universities in Major cities that are surrounded by Villages and towns like Lahore, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Faisalabad, if the youth in these areas is guided to purse degrees in agricultural sciences, the country can develop methods to enhance agricultural output with better jobs and greater agricultural yields leading to big business in corporate farming, poultry, Halal Meat, fisheries, etc. This can also lead to expansion in Pakistan’s agricultural exports specially Halal Meat Market for which there is $3 Trillion Global Market but Pakistan’s share in Halal Meat products is almost zero.Recommend

  • Tousif Latif
    Feb 21, 2015 - 1:37PM

    In the past population and the craze for higher education both were in limits.Govdrnment was the main employers.Now government’s capacity to absorb the young graduates has virtually dried up.Our economy has failed to gain the momentum.With the current anemic growth figures job creation is next to impossible.We too need a robust growth spurt as happened in our neighbouring countries like China and India to provide decent jobs to our youth.Recommend

  • Anonymous
    Feb 22, 2015 - 10:44AM

    Sir, your analysis is very accurate. People have to know modern system of education was developed by capitalist economy to provide work force. As you pointed out correctly that advanced economies needed scholars so higher education of US model was introduced.
    Unfortunately our graduates after graduation become useless unless they got highly paid job.
    Other unfortunate story is that our all governments have abandoned poor people by notv providing quality education up to 12 th grade. Why it is important ? To have informed citizens who can read, write, and decide rationally for themselves and society. Reasonably educated citizen is an asset of society.
    From that pool students should be selected for higher education to produce leaders in all areas
    Please keep writing and some times I am surprised how you are tolerated in your job with such a clear head.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 22, 2015 - 2:59PM

    In a nutshel the author is asking for reforms in Pakistan education system and prioritisation of specific study areas for potntial students. This is good and indeed a step in the right direction for academia. The institutions should however also aim at increasing their standards which are equal at least to the average of the European Universities leavel.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Anticorruption
    Feb 23, 2015 - 2:13PM

    Interesting piece. And the author is raising a valid point. However, the way he is framing it is somewhat problematic.

    A country needs social scientists and PHDs too. It may not need them in very large numbers, but there is a place for them too. The writer almost sounds as if they are completely useless instead of acknowledging that there is a need for them too.

    Likewise, the writer’s criticism of the 4-year bachelers degree is again misplaced. A bachelers degree should indeed be a 4-year one. The actual issue is that perhaps a bachelers or masters degree is not for everyone. There should be an emphasis on vocational training starting from the school level, and the majority should get ‘technical’ education rather than pursuing bachelers/masters degrees.

    As for bachelers/masters programs, the problem is that the number of universities has expanded too quickly. This has also resulted in a large number of low quality universities producing people who have degrees on paper but struggle with FSc/FA level basics. A better approach would have been to be conservative in opening/allowing new universities and making sure that university charters were granted only where there was enough faculty to produce good quality graduates. That would have prevented an over-supply of unemployable university graduates while ensuring that the ones who got university education were really qualified. From that, the country should be producing its natural scientists, engineers, doctors, social scientists, MBAs, lawyers etc, all of whom are also very important.

    In short, produce fewer graduates with higher degrees, and make sure they are really qualified. And for the rest, provide good vocational training. A nation needs thought leaders and intellectuals as well as labour force. The writer therefore has a point, except that he almost denies the relevance of the former.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 23, 2015 - 3:36PM

    You have gone into details requiring university graduates to a higher standard than todays level. This is a solid point and can also be achieved by upgrading the matriculaton standard by extending one year for those who want to pursue university education, eliminating the FA and FSC in Universities.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Faisal
    Feb 23, 2015 - 6:31PM

    I think this our biggest problem because majority of us our failed to make good educational plan due to lack of career councilling, which should start from Secondary level Recommend

  • Imran Asghar
    Feb 24, 2015 - 12:23PM

    Spot on. Great article that brings out a major issue in our higher education system. One of the best authors at ET.Recommend

  • Inzar Gul
    Mar 16, 2015 - 9:40AM

    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.Recommend

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