This newspaper’s editorial ‘Whither and wither’ of Jan 4 articulates two excellent questions about the direction of Higher Education in Pakistan, while expressing disappointment over the shelving of HEC’s plan to create world-class universities in Pakistan. The editorial asks: ‘If you are poor and bright you have few options and ‘abroad’ isn’t one of them. But what if ‘abroad’ were somehow to be able to come to us? What if the benefits of a foreign education system could somehow get transplanted to Pakistan?’ I believe those are well-phrased questions to which we may still find solutions, but we would need some visionary political leadership to do so.
There are three streams to my answer. First, how we may still import the benefits of a foreign education to Pakistan even though the government has backed out of the HEC plan, particularly for underprivileged bright students. Second, what support will it take from our government and society to make these other initiatives work. Third why should our government and society even care to invest in internationally recognized institutions of research and education.
First, hope may lie in supporting select initiatives in the private non-profit sector to create options for the underprivileged, by importing the benefits of a foreign education system. The SSE aims to do exactly that. We hope to bring a world-class education to Pakistan by establishing a school of science and engineering modeled on some of the best research universities in the world (e.g. MIT/Caltech/Stanford etc). Even more importantly, we want it to be a doorway to opportunity for students from under-privileged backgrounds who would otherwise not get a chance to study at places like MIT. For this reason, our admissions are need-blind. We admitted our inaugural class this year (2008). From more than 7,000 applicants for 200 seats, we admitted some of the best students in Pakistan, without regard for their ability to afford their education. Approximately 56 per cent of our first class is on some form of financial aid, which equates to around 44 per cent of the students paying no tuition. Some of these students are from the most underprivileged segments of society.
Second, models like the SSE are resource-intensive, but can still be supported with far fewer funds than the recently shelved HEC initiative. These models are resource intensive because currently tuition is set at less than 50 per cent of what it costs the SSE to deliver a world-class research-based education. Many research universities like MIT, Caltech and Stanford do the same. The SSE must therefore operate in serious deficit even if it did not offer financial aid. This means that even though the SSE has raised significant resources through its Board of Trustees and private donors, it still needs an endowment of around $125-150 million to cover its deficit. However, this amount is significantly less than the cost of each university under the HEC plan (I believe that cost was $600-800 million per university). Even if the government were to not fund an endowment, it could help sustain the institution by offering scholarships to needy students. Such support would equate to around $10,000 per deserving student per year. In steady state, around 400 students would be on such scholarships at the SSE, which means the government would have to fund around $4 million per year. This is a pittance for a government if there is truly interest in establishing a research-based university in Pakistan.
Finally, why should society and government care to support institutions like the SSE. It should care if it cares to produce the leaders who will find solutions to our most pressing problems and if it wishes to create beacons of hope for the future of higher education in Pakistan. We see the SSE as a globally-visible peak in our higher education landscape which will be a catalyst of change. We believe it is essential to produce a class of people who are internationally competitive, yet deeply rooted in the local culture, and can help address some of our most urgent national problems. The SSE’s ambitious effort to import the MIT/Caltech/etc. model, we hope is a transition point for Pakistan, like Johns Hopkins University was in 1876; the first research university in the US. More importantly, we hope it creates a model of engagement for universities to contribute to national needs. That is why society should care.
The writer is an MIT alum (PhD ’01 in Operations Research) and currently an associate professor and associate dean at the LUMS School of Science and Engineering. This article is written in his private capacity. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org