“Audaciously ambitious” is how Jackie Killeen, the British Council’s acting director of the UK region, described the Pak-UK Education Gateway. Almost 10 years in the making, the initiative builds on cooperation between the British Council and Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) to deliver Vision 2025, a bold strategy for the delivery of a major step change in Pakistan’s higher education.
The initiative was launched in Islamabad on 26 November at a conference attended by the British Council, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Pakistan’s 180 vice-chancellors of public and private universities and the largest delegation of UK higher education leaders ever to travel to Pakistan, of which I was a part.
The launch of the Pak-UK Education Gateway coincided with prime minister Imran Khan’s 100th day in office, and its ambitions mirror those of a government committed to education as the key driver to lifting people out of poverty, developing economic growth and linking Pakistan more closely to the West by constructing the stage for greater cultural diplomacy.
All of this is of enormous significance for the UK, where 2 per cent of the population emanates from the Pakistani diaspora. The UK continues to be the largest funder of development aid in Pakistan, a country where more is spent on development aid by the UK than in any other country.
It therefore makes sense to invest directly in education and research, particularly in initiatives that cross borders, cultures and religious differences to build capacity through collaboration. International mobility programmes for staff and students, transnational education, distance education, joint PhD supervision and collaborative research projects are all on the agenda – along with initiatives to support women in education, citizenship education and community education.
Pakistan’s HEC’s ambitions are indeed audacious; the government wishes to see an increase in the number of universities from fewer than 200 today to 300 by 2025. Over the same period Pakistan’s Vision 2025 plans for a 15 per cent rise in the student population to 7.1 million and an increase of 40 per cent in academic staff with PhDs.
This is higher education development on a grand scale. The initiative is designed to develop the graduate workforce that will deliver on the challenges of a fast-evolving global economy within a country where 64 per cent of the population is aged below 30 and where the total population is forecast to increase from 220 million in 2018 to 400 million by 2050.
The HEC realises that the scale of ambition cannot be achieved without international support. There simply isn’t the supervisory capacity, for example, to achieve the ambitions relating to research student growth and longer-term research development. Joint PhD supervision between universities in the UK and Pakistan is proposed as one solution to this.
Capacity building in leadership and governance also forms a large part of the initiative, with an emphasis on the co-development of solutions. Developing the country’s own teaching excellence framework and a research excellence framework is being considered; a REF designed specifically for Pakistan may be able to develop the assessment of impact needed to leverage vital engagement between industry and academia.
During the week the HEC also announced long-awaited policy guidance on transnational education and the sector is extremely receptive to working with UK universities. While I was there I visited the Millennium University College in Islamabad, a private sector university that has evolved from a model of private sector school provision, and the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design in Lahore where the creativity and innovation of the students and staff was outstanding.
The political and strategic intent for greater collaboration between the UK’s and Pakistan’s universities is clear and an initial £1 million in funding from the British Council and scholarships from the Association of Commonwealth Universities have already been announced.
While there are undoubtedly security issues to contend with, our best hope of securing a peaceful Pakistan and thus peace and prosperity around the globe must be through investing in education.
Cara Aitchison is president and vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University.