USAID support for HE aims to boost graduate employability

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Pakistan have launched a US$19 million five-year programme to support Pakistan’s higher education through bilateral academic linkages aimed at addressing employability issues facing Pakistani graduates.

The new initiative, Higher Education System Strengthening Activity (HESSA), formally launched on 12 May, will be implemented through Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) to help prepare graduates for the workforce and introduce global higher education standards and practices in institutions of higher learning in the country.

It will also work towards enhancing inclusivity for women, marginalised communities, students from underserved areas and people with disabilities, helping to improve equitable access to quality higher education through measures such as financial aid, scholarships, distance learning opportunities and career counselling.

The USAID support aims to increase linkages between academic institutions and industries and business in order to improve the employability of graduates.

The main project partners from the United States are the University of Utah, the University of Alabama and the Institute of International Education, while 15 Pakistani universities are part of the project, five of which are women-only universities.

An eye on market requirements

The project’s chief of party, Aslam Chaudhry, who is based at the University of Utah, said that “bilateral cooperation will integrate local best practices in higher education with those prevailing in the universities of the United States for improving teaching, research and governance at the institutions of higher education in Pakistan”.

He said all programmes will be linked to market requirements and the practices will be followed by other universities to assist in improving employability among graduates.

USAID Mission Director in Pakistan Julie Koenen, who was the lead speaker at the inaugural ceremony, said the programme will build stronger Pakistani universities for student employability through market-needed education and research.

“This will prepare talented young people with the required skills to find jobs and launch their careers. It will also support the needs of industry, increase hiring and productivity, and stimulate further economic growth,” she said.

HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri told University World News the initiative would “open ways for continued collaboration and cooperation of Pakistani universities with the American universities and help our universities undertake governance reforms, modernise research and make higher education more relevant to economic needs”.

Long-term sustainability

Cheri Anne Daily, project manager for the programme and director of external relations and development at the Office for Global Engagement at the University of Utah, said with funding from the US government through USAID, the project would “revamp the research, training, education and governance of Pakistan’s partner universities on a sustainable basis so that system improvements continued to yield benefits beyond the project’s lifespan”.

“It will enable our partners in Pakistan to prepare and implement their own business plans, make their own long-term strategies for multilateral engagements [to achieve] self-reliant institutions of higher education in the country,” Daily told University World News.

The project has three main components aiming to improve organisational performance: strategic planning; increased private sector partnership to broaden funding resources; and modernising of the curriculum to improve graduate employability.

USAID programmes

This project is the latest among other USAID-sponsored higher education support programmes for Pakistan in the last 10 years including the Centers for Advanced Studies (CAS) project; and the wide-scale Merit and Needs-based Scholarship Program that has run over the last 17 years.

The CAS project, launched in 2015, connected three US universities with expertise in energy, agriculture and water with four Pakistani universities to promote applied research.

Under that programme, a centre for water was established at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro (Sindh), in partnership with the University of Utah.

Centres for energy were set up at Islamabad’s National University of Sciences and Technology and Peshawar’s University of Engineering and Technology in partnership with Arizona State University, while a centre for agriculture and food security was set up at the University of Agriculture Faisalabad in partnership with the University of California, Davis.

Another USAID-funded initiative supported the construction of 17 education faculty buildings to the value of US$47.5 million, while a US$75 million teacher education project was launched in 2011 which introduced new degree programmes and imparted training to university and college teachers, as well as offering scholarships and supporting infrastructure at 15 universities.

This latter programme was implemented in collaboration with the Teachers College at Columbia University.

US support to Pakistan’s higher education sector continues despite upheavals in bilateral relations between the two countries as they observe the 75th year of diplomatic relations.

The two countries have enjoyed warm relations with regard to the war on terror, but there have also been tensions over the Taliban and Afghanistan, and more recently the United States was accused of being linked to the ousting of former prime minister Imran Khan through a vote of no confidence by the parliament, an accusation the United States has categorically rejected.