Pakistan celebrated its 76th independence day amidst nationwide fanfare, coinciding with a change of government in Islamabad and a discernible vulnerability surrounding the country’s economy, fiscal sustainability and social disparity. This time, in the midst of the celebrations, there was some soul searching, voiced in the print and social media, questioning as to what the nation achieved in these 76 years, what went wrong and where does Pakistan stand among the comity of nations that achieved freedom from colonial rule at around the same time? There is a bitter awakening that Pakistan has been left much behind in the realm of economy, human development, technological strides, country image, prosperity, political stability and human happiness. In fact, the fear of being existentially threatened is now more acute than ever before.
The most frustrated lot appears to be the youth of the country – the hope and the backbone of the nation. The youth with means are moving abroad for higher education and the professionals in search of employment. Whereas, the ones with meagre means, low education or skill sets and high ambition, endure exploitation and risk their lives in search of greener pastures abroad with some losing their life at sea while many are hounded by emigration travails. The scale of movement to real or perceived greener pastures is unprecedented.
The most vulnerable youth are the ones who are brilliant but are checkmated to pursue professional education for want of funds. The governments, from time to time, rolled out programs to support talented youths. Unfortunately, however such programmes are rolled back on change of government amidst lack of ownership and /or cuts in social sector funds. It is a tragic and a continuing reminder of apathy on the part of our state functionaries and the legislatures entrusted with the responsibility to protect the interests of their electorate.
Earlier, Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) employed its mandate to support talent through scholarships at the postgraduate level—for a masters or a PhD degree. With the change of governments, this mandate too was compromised.
The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government in 2019 launched the ‘Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarship Programme’ under which every year, 50,000 students of talent from low-income families were to be awarded scholarships for 4 to 5-year undergraduate degree programmes in any of the 119 public-sector universities recognized by HEC covering all major fields of education, including agriculture, arts and humanities, business education, engineering, medicine, physical sciences, and social sciences. Reportedly, after the exit of the PTI government, further entry under the Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarship Programme are now suspended, presumably due to lack of funds and ownership.
The philanthropists of the country have played a significant role in sharing the state’s responsibilities and shaping up the social sector landscape of the country, notably, in primary and secondary education, healthcare, food for the poor, civic amenities in areas left out by the state and filled up multiple gaps in the social fabric of the nation. The segment of the “Undergraduate Scholarship Programme” has been largely left unattended by philanthropists. With this gap, the aspirations of thousands of talented youth for a better tomorrow remain unfulfilled.
There are only a few examples of success to quote: Professional Education Foundation (PEF)) is known to be the largest privately- funded scholarship programmes in Pakistan. Under its captivating mission statement of ‘Poverty Alleviation through Professional Education’, PEF supports students from low-income families and awards scholarships for 4-year to 5-year undergraduate degree programmes with focus on Engineering, Medicine, Information Technology, Business Management and Agriculture. The programme is reported to be entirely funded by broad-based philanthropists from the private sector, significantly by the professionals who have excelled in life with the desire to give some part of it back to the nation, notably, the overseas Pakistanis from the Silicon Valley of the USA who have attained remarkable professional and monetary success and are keen to support professional education in Pakistan. They have an unlimited appetite to fund subject to the credentials of a programme and more importantly its sponsors. Presumably, this level of monitoring by the donors and the independence of the programme free from political compulsions, guarantees programme quality and sustainability.
Starting in 2009, with 75 students under its programme, PEF reached a figure of 2700 students in 2023. At an average cost of Rs 90,000 for fully educating a professional, the organisation has so far provided the nation with 1100 medical practitioners, 1000 engineers, 300 agriculturists, 200 IT specialists and 100 business managers. Invariably, they belong to families of meagre means where the earning member is, for instance; a gardener or a driver or an unskilled or semi-skilled labourer, living in a distressed environment. A child from such background securing above 85% marks in Higher Secondary School Certificate Examination stands qualified for PEF scholarships and is eligible for admission on merit in earmarked government-run universities. Upon successful completion, not only the lives of these individuals are transformed but that of their families too. It is indeed heartening to note that conscious of their success, some among them have volunteered to be pillars of support for their families and their communities in their quest for professional education.
Undoubtedly, prosperity and higher education of the youth of the nation is the fastest and most sustainable way for poverty alleviation. Turning out 2700 professionals from low-income segments of society is a welcome step, which will certainly encourage or motivate philanthropists to even to do more. However, in a nation where hundreds of thousands of youths, from the rural and urban areas alike, are lining up to seek professional education, it is a formidable task to redeem their aspirations. Dramatically, more has to be pledged by the philanthropists of the nation. With the government perennially struggling with the economy and fiscal sustainability, much responsibility lies with the philanthropists of means for poverty alleviation – which apparently is the only hope left out after all these years of despondency. It is imperative that the government divert adequate funds to education and philanthropic organisations of repute for the right cause. Needless to say, spending money on education is like spending it on country’s defence.Farhat Ali, "Pakistan’s journey since Independence," Business recorder. 2023-08-19.
Keywords: Education , Higher Education Commission , Professional education foundation , Scholarship program , Pakistan , PEF , HEC