PAKISTAN: Funding for students abroad suspended

Some 400 Pakistani students admitted to foreign universities with prior assurance that their studies would be financed by the government, will not be able to go after the government ordered the Higher Education Commission to stop scholarship payments.

"We have been asked to tell the selected students and universities that the government does not have enough money for their education abroad," Higher Education Commission (HEC) sources told University World News.

The funding cut is part of an ongoing row over higher education funding in the wake of major floods and a redirection of funding priorities.

The HEC selected 328 students for PhDs and 72 scholars for post-doctoral research, in pure science and social science disciplines, in a competitive process. The qualifying candidates were to attend universities in the UK, US, Germany, Canada, Malaysia and China.

"The programme for sending 400 scholars abroad for higher studies was duly approved by the country's planning commission and a budget was also approved by parliament, but a letter from the finance ministry required us to stop the programme for at least the financial year 2010-11," the HEC source said.

"We were also asked to write to universities to stop their faculty development programmes, under which higher education teachers possessing masters degrees do their PhDs and serve in the same organisation after coming back."

Some 4,200 students from Pakistan are currently at overseas universities including in Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, Holland, the UK, US, Italy, New Zealand and China. Of them, 2800 were sent directly by the HEC and 1,400 were sent by universities under faculty development programmes.

During 2002-08, the HEC directed most of its funds towards faculty development programmes, sending 800 to 1,000 students abroad annually for PhDs and post-doctoral research.

Atta-ur-Rahman, Pakistan's former science minister and HEC head from its inception until his resignation in 2008, who was the driving force behind overseas scholarship and faculty development programmes, said he was "very sad" about the government's decision.

Speaking exclusively to University World News, Atta said: "Investment in the development of bright young faculty through scholarship programmes at PhD level in top universities across the world is critical for the development of our universities.

"The decision by the government to stop these scholarship programmes for the future and even to prevent 400 selected scholars from going abroad is disastrous for our universities. The suspension of this programme has also badly affected the progress and development of universities in Pakistan. I hope that the funding for these scholars can be restored," he said.

The cuts would also "result in scholars already sent abroad deciding not to return to Pakistan. This will be a huge loss to our country and the remarkable progress made by Pakistan in the higher education sector during 2002-08 will receive a major setback," Atta said.

Last year the government stopped the monthly stipend to several hundred students at foreign universities, forcing the students to work part-time to meet their basic needs. They included some 300 Pakistani students in Chinese universities who were promised a stipend of US$300 for masters and US$400 for doctoral programmes per student.

Many had to leave their PhDs in the final year, and returned home after their parents and other family members provided the airfare. A few students had to beg at mosques and in community centres to gather enough money to return to Pakistan.

When the funding was resumed after intense domestic pressure, many of them went back to complete their PhDs and research. Some 360 have now returned home after completing their studies.

Almost 130 returned from China where they had studied engineering, 52 returned with PhDs from South Korean universities, 68 returned from Germany with PhDs in agriculture, soil sciences, bio-chemistry and other basic sciences, and 83 returned from United Kingdom with PhDs in the physical sciences, biological, veterinary and medical sciences. Many attended prestigious universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester.

Smaller numbers returned from the US, Thailand, Sweden and the Netherlands.

According to the government's own figures, it spends US$58,000 for a student to acquire a PhD abroad, with the value of the programme being axed amounting to some US$23 million.

Ahsan Iqbal, chief spokesman for the main opposition party Muslim League and former federal education minister, has criticised the government decision to freeze the foreign scholarship programme.

He told University World News: "By denying the funds to students, government has darkened the future of the country. It is just like stopping the progress of the country."

Funding should be stopped to all Higher Education Commission PhD grant awardees abroad because they are misusing government money and HEC is knowingly silent over the fraud. One alleged case has been reported here already. So it is good that the government has started to make HEC accountable.