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Country’s higher education needs a revolution

If Pakistan must pick one revolution, that must be in education, which will ultimately lay the foundations for IT and green revolutions. The gap in education starts early from childhood as Pakistan ranks second in the world with most-out-of-school children. However, the real gap to be discussed is in quality of higher education, and the role of the private sector in bridging it. The country needs an Indian IIET-type of revolution. In India it was spearheaded by the government but, at home, the government has failed, and the private sector has the muscle and needs to lead the initiative.

It is estimated that every year approximately 100,000 students in Pakistan pass Cambridge O Level and about 40,000 clear A Level exams. The students usually have good access to private education in schools and are geared up to enroll in undergraduate programmes at decent universities. However, the supply of universities and colleges is much lower than the demand. A fraction of the gap was filled by students going to foreign universities, but now with massive currency depreciation, that number is further dropping. The question is what options these capable and affording students have.

Good quality higher education institutes can be easily counted on fingers in Pakistan, and then there is a list of Wall Mart-type quality production in education, which are neither here nor there. There is demand for better education where students (and their parents) have the affordability. For example, a student is paying 60-70 percent (or more), of what LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) is charging fee for undergraduate students, in school and tuition at O and A Levels; but LUMS is inducting only 1,000-1,200 students a year. And by adding other good private universities, a fraction of 40,000 A Level cleared students can be accommodated.

Then there are a number of students (especially in pre-engineering and pre-medical) who shift to FSc after doing O Level, as A Level students are at disadvantage on equivalence. If we include better medical and engineering colleges in the public sector in addition to good private universities, 10-15,000 students are perhaps enrolled every year, while the demand is much higher.

The question is why the private sector is not pouncing on this business opportunity, the way it has done in schools. The public sector schooling has largely failed in Pakistan, and the gap is filled by the private schools at various income levels. It’s a lucrative business where families have made tons of money in the last 20-30 years. The cost of acquiring faculty is low, and not much infrastructure is needed. And good teachers make good money through private tuition. The model is running well.

However, for higher education, the costs are high, and globally good universities are either run by government or by private endowments while tuition fees usually cover 30-40 percent of the cost. There are businesses that ventured into the higher education in Pakistan, but mostly are producing mediocre – half cooked, graduates.

When LUMS was established in 1985, one of the objectives of its founder, Syed Baber Ali, was to provide quality management executives for local businesses.

A similar zest is warranted today. Many corporates are complaining about the dearth of quality HR personnel– especially, when the mid-level management is leaving the country in large numbers. However, the collective action to improve the HR quality is missing. The private sector needs to step in to fund good universities.

During this year, commercial banks are likely to book pre-tax profits of Rs 1,200-1,300 billion. Then Oil and Gas sector to have another Rs400-500 billion. Add telcos, textile, cement and others, the numbers are huge. If they put aside 1 percent of pre-tax profit each year on higher education, that would help create new universities and enhance the country’s thin talent pool in a meaningful manner. The private sector must work in its own interest.

The government can help by providing land. The building infrastructure and running cost are to be borne by private endowments. This is a much-needed philanthropy. They should form trusts, which can be spearheaded by organizations like Pakistan Business Council. It’s good to have a departure from lobbying for economic rents.

The main problem is finding quality faculty. Universities – especially public and mediocre private ones— pay too little. There is a demand for better academics in the world – and is growing fast in the Middle East. One reason for relatively better education by public medical schools is that by being in teaching hospitals help doctors build their private practice. That element is missing in engineering and other disciplines. And even good high school teachers are making good money through private tuition. Every faculty must improve their teaching so as to encourage creativity and quality research. Thus every university must spend on faculty and other facilities, which could not be fully recovered from tuition fee alone. The private sector should have curriculum, which is in need and help to develop linkages between academia and industry.

The pre-Partition Lahore used to be the hub of education in the region. This city even produced several Nobel Laureates. One of the reasons was good collages being funded by private philanthropists, most of whom were Hindus. Dayal Singh College and Gulab Devi Education Complex, for example, constitute a case in point. And the only shining example, after Partition (led by the private sector) is LUMS. A lot more is needed today. The Muslim business community should do the needful in an institutional framework. It’s the need of the hour, so to speak.

Ali Khizar, "Country’s higher education needs a revolution," Business recorder. 2023-11-20.
Keywords: Education , Private sector , Foreign universities , Public Sector , Global education , Higher education , Syed Baber Ali , Pakistan , LUMS

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