Innovation needed to widen access to higher education

Pakistan’s education sector is a dynamic one both in terms of scale and diversity. The constitution of the country makes provision for free education for all to ensure that there is opportunity, equity and social justice for every citizen. However, despite efforts by the government, foreign aid projects and civil society, universal access to high quality education remains an ambitious aspiration.

The challenge of access is huge in a country where 64% of the population are under 30 and the education expenditure is less than 3% of GDP. The number of out-of-school children remains high at around 24 million, of which 55% are girls. The situation is slightly better when it comes to tertiary education. However, there is much that still needs to be done.

In addition to the lack of resources and budget allocation to education, issues like discrimination, access to schools, missing facilities and teacher absenteeism also contribute to low enrolment and high dropout rates.

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For the students who do manage to attain 12 years of education, accessing higher education opportunities is an even bigger challenge. This is particularly true for girls and even more so for girls from rural areas or regions where, for conservative cultural reasons, women are actively discouraged from pursuing education. Also, the lack of both flexibility and positive role models for women perpetuate stereotypes and further impede access.

There is also a clear class demarcation within Pakistani society. This reflects on the opportunities available to young people from various social classes and has significant implications for the quality of education that is accessible, if education is accessible at all. Since public provision of primary and secondary education is neither adequate nor of acceptable quality, there has been a dramatic increase in private provision priced in various ranges. What you choose is largely dependent on how much you can afford to pay.

Someone who cannot afford to pay for high quality private schooling has the option of public schools which come with their own host of problems, ranging from missing basic facilities like furniture and restrooms to entire ghost schools. Private provision is further classified in tiers of schooling available to low-, middle- and high-income classes. The quality provided is also proportional to the tuition paid.

Consequently, poor quality primary and secondary education recipients often also lose out on the limited merit-based admissions and scholarships in the higher education sphere, when competing with students who have had the opportunity to study at high-tier schools. This cycle perpetuates the class divide, resulting in loss of access and opportunities for all.

In addition, access issues are also exacerbated by the urban-rural divide as well as issues around existing infrastructure for degree colleges and universities. Currently, less than 10% of students have access to higher education. This number has increased over the past decade and so has the number of universities. But the number and profile of students in universities is still limited and there is tremendous scope for innovative solutions.

Distance learning

There has, however, been some effort to improve access through online and distance learning education.

One example is of the Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU). Established in 1974, it is the oldest provider of distance learning programmes in the country and the second-oldest in the world. Improving access for non-traditional students, including mature students, working professionals and females with limited mobility, AIOU provides low-cost degree programmes, making higher education accessible for people from a variety of backgrounds, including lower, middle and poor classes.

The university offers more than 2,000 courses delivered mainly through broadcasted lessons, with more than 1,000 study centres across the country. The enrolment is 1.2 million students per year, 58% being from rural areas, improving access in some of the hardest to reach areas.

Another example of open and distance learning provision in the country is the recently established Virtual University of Pakistan, which differs from AIOU in its use of technology.

Like the AIOU, the Virtual University also offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes entirely through distance learning. However, it integrates technology, a comprehensive online and physical assessment and learning management system, with remote campuses across the country equipped with internet connectivity. In the spirit of inclusion a zero semester is also offered to students who do not meet the minimum admission criteria.

Women-only universities

There have also been attempts to widen participation through the provision of women-only universities, starting with the Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi which supports access for women who would not have been allowed to study in a co-educational environment by conservative parents. There are now over a dozen women-only universities across the country.

Another example is the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development, where provision is made not only for the women enrolled but also their families (often their children) to be housed in hostels and supported, including care facilities. This allows mothers who would not otherwise have had the opportunity, to study. Similarly, many elite universities now include outreach activities in smaller towns and villages and offer scholarships to talented students.

Scholarships and private provision

The higher education sector has grown rapidly since the inception of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Created in 2002, the HEC has worked extensively to not only improve access but also quality, drawing upon indigenous and international best practices and models. Since its inception, the commission has provided numerous local and foreign scholarships to students, thus playing a significant role in enabling young people to go to universities.

One of the major impediments to access is the rising cost of higher education. Scholarships and fellowships support students who otherwise would not have been able to pursue their education and drop out.

The HEC has been disbursing a number of scholarships to overcome this challenge, including needs-based scholarships and scholarships funded by development agencies as well as central government. Additionally, various universities also offer their own scholarships and bursaries.

On the other hand, there has been a dramatic increase in universities in the private sector, particularly in Karachi in the south of Pakistan. Many of these universities are built and driven by industry and resonate with an increased focus on employability skills and entrepreneurship.

Even though, in theory, more universities mean more provision for the growing number of eligible young people, the high tuition fees and other costs that are not offset by the government mean that these factors perpetuate the cycle of deprivation and lack of opportunity, where opportunity is most needed.

Nida Dossa is manager, higher education and skills, at the British Council in Pakistan.