US pledges US$15 million to support universities

The United States has pledged US$15 million to construct facilities at seven Pakistani universities to offer degrees in education. The initiative is considered a confidence-building measure after a NATO raid mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border at Salala last November.

On 2 February seven vice-chancellors and representatives of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Pakistan concluded agreements to set up education departments.

The institutions are Hazara University in Mansehra, the University of Sindh in Hyderabad, the University of Karachi, Shah Abdul Latif University, the University of Education and Punjab University in Lahore, and Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta.

It is expected that the USAID-funded construction will be completed in two years and will benefit at least 2,000 students a year and accommodate 100 faculty members.

“We shall build new buildings to start faculties of education at universities where the discipline does not exist,” the chair of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission, Javaid Laghari, told University World News.

“Besides that the US funds shall be spent on renovating or constructing additional buildings and facilities at universities where a faculty of education already exists.”

The programme aims to improve teaching quality by improving the quality of teachers. Low teaching standards are widely seen as a hurdle to improving university and college-level education in Pakistan.

“Unfortunately, teaching is not a priority profession here and the ones who do not get other dream jobs opt to become teachers. This initiative will certainly [encourage] graduates to take teaching as a preferred profession,” Karachi University Vice-Chancellor Prizada Qasim Raza Siddique told University World News.

USAID Deputy Director for Pakistan Karen Freeman described the initiative as a manifestation of excellent bilateral relations between Pakistan and the US. It also showed America’s commitment to assisting Pakistan address challenges such as improving higher education, science and technology.

Academics in Pakistan believe US support for higher education could help improve diplomatic relations that have soured since Pakistan blocked NATO supply lines following the Salala incident. For its part, the US has blamed Pakistan agencies for having links with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sakhawat Shah, vice-chancellor of Hazara University, told University World News that despite a three-month diplomatic stand-off, “a large number of Pakistani students are pursuing research degrees in the United States”.

Also, many USAID programmes started in 2004 to support higher education in Pakistan were proceeding normally “showing that military differences have not, so far, marred higher education cooperation between these two countries”.

Hazara University, one of the seven to benefit from the US initiative, is located in Mansehra, 37 kilometres south of Abbottabad, where Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by US Navy Seals in May last year.