Going abroad, but why?

07 Feb 2020

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PERCEPTIONS matter. Unfortunately. “There is this general perception in our country that foreign education, or any foreign consumer product per se, is superior than the national one,” says Azeem Haider, who works at a bank in New York after himself having acquired education in the United States, while talking about students’ preference for going abroad for studies than pursuing their education in Pakistan.

“There is some truth in that, but it really depends on the college/university in question. In my experience, I can say that there is a huge spectrum of quality when it comes to college and universities abroad. College rankings, in my opinion, represent the ultimate test whether a college, regardless of its location, is superior or inferior. It also comes down to the area of focus of the student as some colleges offer better programmes in certain fields of study,” he says, adding that he “can name many situations where I have come across better qualified candidates from local universities versus foreign universities.”

Azeem may have seen bright students having schooled in Pakistan as there is no dearth of talent in the country and our students usually perform well when they go abroad. But most people in the country are quite disappointed with the quality of education at our local colleges and universities, and think it is the driving factor which forces our students to seek education abroad.

And they have reason to be disappointed. The QS World University rankings say a lot about the quality of education in our universities. According to the 2019 rankings, only seven Pakistani universities are in the top 1,000 entities of the world, and, of these, only three made it to the top 500. The Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS), which has been ranked as the country’s highest ranking university, is at the 397th position, while the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) stands at 417, followed by the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU).

While perception does influence choices when it comes to higher education, there is also a lot on the ground that cannot be ignored when picking up your next academic stop.

Given the standard of education in most of our universities, students make it their life’s ambition to go abroad for higher education. To add to the equation is the range of subjects available to students. Most of our universities do not offer a number of subjects that the students may want to pursue their career in. So if students want to study, say, space science they have limited choice of institutions that offer it locally, and, if possible in any way, they will opt to go abroad.

But it is not only university ranking or quality of education that makes children go abroad. Mehreen, a mother of three, thinks peer pressure is also an important factor. Two of her sons went to the United Kingdom for graduation, and the third is aspiring to follow the same path. She says that “quality of education offered at our universities is poor and this combined with peer pressure forces our children to go abroad. What options do they have after graduation or even Master’s from our local institutions?” she asks.

Peer pressure, as Rumana Hussain says, “is something which for the 16-18 year olds is almost impossible to deal with. Almost every student at the school aspires to go to a college or university either in the US or the UK. Also, there is encouragement from the teachers to apply.”

Such is the power of peer pressure that when Maria’s parents did not allow her to go abroad after A Levels, she became dejected and lost interest in her studies. She wanted to go to the UK for her graduation, like her friends, but her parents did not allow her as they thought she was too young to live on her own in a strange country.

They explained to her that they will send her for Master’s, but seeing most of her friends applying to foreign universities during their final year of A Levels, she could not focus on her studies. She could not see any reason to work hard and felt left out from her peer group. Now studying at a prestigious university in Pakistan, she believes most of the students there are those who could not go abroad for one reason or another.

Mehreen points out another factor: “Quite a number of families now have disposable income and can afford to send their children abroad.” But to say that all students who go abroad are supported by their parents will not be right. Many bright students who deserve a good education cannot go abroad because they cannot afford to do so.

Some years back, funding and scholarships were more readily available and those who could not afford, sought these opportunities. Rumana and her husband had made it clear to their children that they cannot afford to send them abroad for studies. However, her children were lucky as both of them got scholarships to go abroad, as “it was something they had always harboured in their hearts, as their grandfather had also gone to the US from pre-partition India, and their father went to a university in Turkey”.

“The quality of education/higher education and the opportunities over there is another matter. We also realised how much the professors there push the students to get the best out of them,” adds Rumana.

However, scholarships are now not as readily available as they were some time back, especially for countries such as the US, UK and Canada, though there are more opportunities for countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Japan, etc. Still some do get funding, Says s Azeem: “I have seen some very bright Pakistani students getting full scholarships purely on the basis of merit from some of the top universities abroad.” However, he cautions that “with the ever-evolving political landscape, that may change as well”.

Ali Shahid, who has MBBS and MBA degrees from Karachi and works at a multinational pharmaceutical company in Karachi, sums it all: “Lack of opportunities locally, lack of quality education, lack of research-oriented fields and favouritism in evaluation are key factors. The sad stories of struggle they hear from their seniors working in Pakistan push them to seek education abroad.”

However, he points out that the students who aspire to go abroad “are generally oblivious of the hardships that students have to face while there, such as part-time jobs, loneliness and in some cases even profiling. They only see the beautifully painted picture which is available via different social forums and build their entire assumption around that”.

It is not that we do not have good institutions in the country. But they are few and may be counted on fingertips. How many students can get admission to institutions such as the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, and a few others?

Even if they do manage to secure a place at one of these institutions, what chances do students have of getting a good job, given the market situation in the country. When they invest so much in education, they want better jobs which are not there. Students know that if they study abroad, there are more chances of landing a job in that country, and even if they come back they will get preference in the job market.

Says Azeem: “If the student has long-term career aspirations [of settling] abroad, then it is better to have a foreign degree, although some of the more prestigious universities in Pakistan, such as the IBA and LUMS, are also very well recognised abroad.”

He gives his personal example: “My motivation to pursue studies abroad was to pursue a career on Wall Street in the long term, so that is why I chose to go to a renowned business school in the US.” He fears that “due to the political turmoil over the last two decades, the chances for a Pakistani graduate to apply for a job internationally purely on merit has become increasingly difficult due to visa restrictions”.

But what happens when an individual decides to come back after completing their studies? Do they get jobs according to their qualification and calibre?

Says Ali: “Entry level positions pay very little here compared to foreign countries where degrees matter more.” He cites the example of his brother who graduated from the US, worked there for some years, and came back because of his mother’s ill health.

“Abbas [his brother] was earning way better than me even after graduation. He was offered unbelievable jobs at Cisco and Microsoft, but he returned due to our mother’s heath issues, although he had work permit as well. Somehow, here, he wasn’t offered jobs that were up to his calibre, and most of the interviewers were either less educated or were scared to hire him.

“During all this, he did a stint at a company at almost one-third of what he was earning a few years back and without a Master’s. Now he is jobless for almost three years and becoming a misfit in the local market since IT is more of an evolving field and gap creeped in, distancing him further from the advancement that has taken place in technology.”

“Also, it’s a fact that education ki yahan qadar nahin. I have many seniors who are less educated and I know many who have fake credentials. The management does not knowingly pay heed to that. This is almost unheard of in countries like Canada,” he concludes.