Pakistan and India offer scholarship olive branch

Pakistan and India are increasingly using higher education as a foreign policy instrument, in particular to improve relations with post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pakistan announced a package of 600 fully funded scholarships for students from Afghanistan – on the same day that an Afghan minister visiting Delhi pledged to increase education links with India.

Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Academic Affairs M Osman Babury said in New Delhi on Sunday: “Nearly 5,000 to 6,000 Afghan students are presently in India studying different courses. India is an excellent place for our students to come to.”

Academics hope that people-to-people contact through higher education cooperation between Afghanistan and India, and between Afghanistan and Pakistan, will ultimately help to pave the way for greater political and economic stability in the region.

“Afghanistan is important for both India and Pakistan, for many reasons ranging from political ones to economic ones, and it is good that both the nations are in competition to employ higher education cooperation as a means to improve relations with Afghanistan,” Zarina Salamat, vice-president of the Islamabad-based Council of Social Sciences, told University World News.

Afghanistan’s relations with India became strained during the Taliban regime, from 1996-2001, while relations with Pakistan have soured recently as both countries blame each other for cross-border infiltration of terrorists.

The 600 scholarships announced by Pakistan last week are part of the ‘Prime Minister of Pakistan’s 2000 Scholarships Scheme for Afghan Students’ initiative, and are an indication that the country’s highest political office is supporting education links with its neighbour.

Sources said Pakistan is also considering a further increase in the number of scholarships for Afghan students.

Pakistan started the initiative in 2009, the same year that India said it would increase the number of scholarships for Afghan students from 675 to 1,000, according to a January 2009 announcement in Kabul during a meeting between visiting Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

Scholarships also came under the spotlight during a December 2010 meeting between Karzai and Pakistan’s former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, when they acknowledged the importance of higher education assistance in their relations.

This was reaffirmed at a meeting this year between Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, when reference was made to the scholarships and both sides agreed that “education could also become a bridge for the two peoples”.

Currently, some 1,500 students from various universities and research institutions in Afghanistan are doing higher degrees at Pakistan’s top universities.

“Pakistan is offering higher education degrees to Afghan students in the fields of medicine, engineering, IT, business administration, agriculture, economics, natural sciences and teaching, and all these fields of study are important for development in Afghanistan,” the chair of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission, Javaid Laghari, told University World News.

Some 31,000 Afghan students have graduated from Pakistani universities, funded under older scholarship schemes or on a self-financing basis, and are now back in their own country.

Apart from scholarship funds from India and Pakistan, Karzai also said in April that the government would double its scholarship budget for Afghan students studying abroad, from US$5 million to US$10 million, with the number of students being sent to universities in India and Turkey rising from 500 to 1,000 this year.

And last month Karzai said the figure would rise further, to US$15 million in the coming years.

During his visit to New Delhi, Babury said Indian higher education scholarships for Afghan students were for fields important for Afghanistan’s infrastructure development.

"The whole infrastructure [in Afghanistan] had collapsed in 2001. Most institutions were closed, the outstanding teachers had left the country...and women were totally excluded from the education system,” the Delhi-based Indo-Asian News Agency reported him as saying.

"We are trying to tie up with Indian universities to set up campuses in Afghanistan," Babury added.