ASIA: Pakistan and Afghanistan launch 'education diplomacy'

A 15-member delegation of vice-chancellors and professors of Afghan universities arrived in Pakistan last Monday for a 10-day visit to local universities to explore areas of cooperation. Hopes are also high that 'education diplomacy' could reduce tensions between the neighbours strained since 9/11 as both sides accused each other of supporting terrorism, improve diplomatic relations and enhance the political climate in the region.

Gholam Osman Hossaini, Chancellor of Herat University in Afghanistan, said: "We think that knowledge cooperation is the best way to improve collaboration in other areas. The current initiative of education linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan shall bring people of these two countries closer and would be helpful in alleviating existing mistrust on both sides."

Pakistan's Higher Education Commission (HEC) Member for Planning, Mukhtar Ahmed, said universities in the 21st Century needed to play a part in building not only the futures of students but economies, communities and leadership.

Headed by Kabul University Chancellor Professor Hamidullah Amin, Afghan higher education leaders said that aside from university collaboration they also hoped to benefit from the expertise of the HEC, which has been widely credited with promoting the rapid growth of higher education Pakistan.

There were planned visits to the University of Peshawar, Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, and the University of Punjab in Lahore.

"During our meeting with Pakistan's HEC we agreed to immediately start fellowships for students and initiate joint research programmes with Pakistani universities. And we hope to discover many more areas of mutual cooperation during our visits to different universities," the Vice-chancellor of Kabul University, Mokamel Alakozai, told University World News.

HEC Chairman Javed Leghari said areas for collaboration included a faculty exchange programme, student exchanges and fellowships, joint programmes in distance education, joint research, an institutional linkage programme, knowledge sharing and skills development in the form of professional courses.

Pakistan will also provide higher education consultancy and other services to Afghanistan, including curriculum design, learning innovation, reforms procedures, university-industry linkages, setting up research repositories and human resource development.

Meanwhile Pakistan's universities, faced with reduced resources, hope to benefit by attracting more Afghan students.

The Vice-chancellor of Pakistan's University of Peshawar, Azmat Hayat Khan, told University World News: "People across the border in both countries have similar culture and values which offers a wider market for Pakistan [universities]. Like any other sector, Pakistani universities can benefit by attracting students from Afghanistan and it would also be less costly for Afghan students as the countries are close neighbors."

Khan added: "More than 100 Afghan students are already studying in Pakistan, which shows the potential for enhancing education cooperation between both nations. It would also be politically very wise."

Representatives of civil society organisations, including Faisal Nadeem Gorchani, head of policy advocacy at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, also highlighted the political benefits.

"It is of the utmost necessity to build people-to-people and academic linkages between Pakistan and Afghanistan before starting any confidence-building measures at political level," Gorchani told University World News.

"We believe, as representatives of civil society, that higher education cooperation between these countries would be more fruitful than any other diplomacy measures."

The visiting Afghan higher education delegation includes chancellors, vice-chancellors and faculty from Kabul University, Nangarhar University, Shaikh Zayed University, Herat University and the National Centre for Policy Research of Afghanistan.

The Vice-chancellor of Afghanistan's Nangarhar University, Naeem Jan Sarwari, told University World News: "We have decided to build a strategic partnership with higher education institutions in Pakistan and we shall hold annual meetings in order to review progress in the collaborative activities we have identified and agreed during our visit."

Higher education cooperation was first envisaged as part of an overall Pakistan-Afghanistan Initiative agreed during the March 2010 meeting of the Group of Eight countries in Gatineau, Canada, to develop both countries economically and provide their populations with greater opportunities to build resilience against violent extremism.

Along with other areas of development including the economy, the plan for higher education cooperation was agreed by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan in consultation with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The current visit was supported by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.