For a nation of 180-million people, a very small fraction of Pakistanis pursue higher education. Compared to Canada, where one in every 33 people is enrolled in a university, only one in 180 persons is enrolled in a University in Pakistan. Despite the expansion of the higher education sector in the past few years, the demand for higher education far exceeds the supply in Pakistan resulting in hundreds of thousands of Pakistani youth searching for higher education opportunities abroad.

With almost $30 billion in revenue collected as tuition fees from an estimated two-million students studying abroad, higher education is a large global enterprise where both public and private sectors universities in the West cater to the demand for higher education generated by foreign students. A very small number of the global population of two million students studying abroad are Pakistanis. Given that the demand for higher education in Pakistan cannot be met locally, the private sector, students, and their parents must work together to find innovative solutions for securing higher education opportunities for Pakistani students.

The Higher Education Commission under General Musharraf received generous funding from domestic and foreign sources that led to the expansion of the higher education sector in Pakistan. Most of these funds arrived after September 2001 when Americans and Europeans channelled huge sums of money to Pakistani universities to stem the tide of religious extremism.  Speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2007, renowned researcher Hasan Askari Rizvi explained that some in the West naively believed that higher education “can change the mind-set of Pakistanis so they will become moderate and pro-America." Irrespective of the motives, the huge sums received for higher education resulted in a dramatic expansion in the higher education sector in Pakistan where university enrolment jumped from under 100,000 in 1998-99 to an estimated 1.1 million in 2011.

Source: Pakistan Economic Survey (2010-11), Government of Pakistan

This dramatic increase resulted from increasing the capacity of existing universities, but more importantly from granting charter to a large number of private sector universities. While the expansion of universities in the federal capital, Islamabad, occurred primarily in the public sector, the expansion in Sindh and Punjab was largely driven by the private sector. In the academic year 2009-10 alone, the Higher Education Commission granted license (recognition) to three new universities. The rapid expansion of the university system met with strong criticism. “The slapdash methods of the government's reform efforts have done more to widen the cracks in an already weak infrastructure than to lay the foundation for an educational renaissance,” argued some skeptics while speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007.


While the demand for quality higher education will force many aspiring youth to seek education opportunities abroad, they will face an uphill battle trying to obtain quality advice on how to prepare for higher education in foreign universities. Most students’ parents, family members, and friends have no prior experience of higher education in foreign countries. At the same time their instructors are also largely trained in Pakistan and cannot offer advice. The private sector higher education consultants in Pakistan are mostly quacks who charge exorbitant amounts for inadequate advice.

In the following paragraphs, I will explain some important considerations for those who would like to pursue graduate degrees in Europe or North America. While the list could be longer, however, the following key considerations are likely to have the biggest influence on one’s ability to succeed in obtaining higher education abroad.

Remember, Bachelors is 16 years of Education In North America, Europe, and Australia, a Bachelors degree is awarded after 16-years of formal education. In Pakistan, a BA is awarded after 14 years of formal education. Therefore those who have completed a Bachelors from Pakistan are not eligible to be enrolled in a graduate degree abroad. Pakistani students are better off completing a post-graduate degree in Pakistan (16 years of formal education) before applying for a graduate degree abroad.

Several private sector universities have implemented semester system based undergraduate curriculum, which is similar to the one implemented abroad. Graduates from such universities may apply directly to graduate programs abroad.

Know the Deadlines Most graduate programs abroad begin in September. Often admission deadlines for foreign students are in March or April. Applicants should ensure that complete applications with reference letters, transcripts, and other supporting materials reach the university well before the deadline. Applying sooner always increases one’s chances for admissions.

Search for the University that wants You While you as an aspiring student are nervously applying to universities abroad, administrators at many universities are also nervously waiting for applications to arrive. Remember not every department in every foreign university is fortunate to have thousands of applications. Sometimes some departments in very well-known universities are struggling to attract graduate students and hence are keen to greet all applicants with interest. The challenge for the applicant is to try to determine what departments or universities are eager to have additional students.

A rule of thumb, especially if you are not the top innovator who has already published his or her research in Nature,  is to avoid applying to Ivy League universities, such as Stanford, Harvard, and other similar universities, which attract applications from the top talent in not just the United States, but from all over the world. There is no shortage of decent, not necessarily top-quality, universities in the Western world. In the United States alone there are roughly 5,500 universities or institutes of higher learning where approximately 14 million students are currently enrolled. As a smart aspiring student, you should be able to use the Internet effectively to develop a list of second-tier universities that offer specializations in your interest. From that list of prospects, you should initiate a dialogue with admission officers to determine information about acceptance rates. If the department of your interest accepts only 5% of the applicants, you may want to expand your search to other institutions where your odds have to be much higher than mere 5%.

Know who to contact at the University Never send the same letter of interest to every professor in the same department. If you send an email to every listed faculty member on the department’s website expressing your keenness to join their research team, you are most likely not to get a response at all. You should do research to determine who is the right person to receive your inquiry instead of sending mass emails.

Take all required tests Often Pakistani applicants are wrong-footed by default at the start of the application process when they start requesting for exemptions from the university’s stated admission policy. This hurts applicant’s prospects big time. If the university wants foreign applicants to demonstrate proficiency in English language by taking some test, such as TOEFL, comply with the conditions. Instead most Pakistani students start negotiating with the university to exempt them from TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, or LSAT tests.

These tests are an excellent opportunity for students to get a taste of the pedagogy in foreign universities. By demonstrating proficiency in these tests applicants can have their candidacy established more firmly because the university will have more confidence in your abilities after learning about your good scores in these tests. You have to realize that most admission committees have not heard of the university from where you have graduated. Even if one is the top student in one’s graduating class, the admission committees have no way of finding an equivalence of your performance abroad.

Learn Writing in English A few years ago an eager student from Pakistan sent his inquiry to me in an email exploring the possibility of doing research in my lab. However, what the student really wrote in his email was quite different than what he intended to say. He wrote: “I am interested in transport planning and would like to explore myself with you!” I obviously could not share his stated interest but realized that lack of English proficiency will be a huge deterrent for the student.

The undergraduate curriculum in Pakistan seldom requires students to write essays in any language, let alone English. Thus critical thinking and writing skills fail to develop in Pakistan in most undergraduate and graduate programs. The graduate curriculum abroad is based on extensive academic writing in English. Instead of arguing with others about your proficiency in writing, try instead of proving it by writing an op-ed article for Dawn or any other English language paper. In fact try publishing an article in Urdu in a newspaper in Pakistan. If you fail to do so, know then that you need help with writing. You better learn it before you board the plane.

Learn Statistics If you are not pursuing a degree in humanities, you will most likely be asked to take a course in statistics. That’s where the trouble begins for most Pakistani students who often have no prior training in statistical analysis. I have seen one of the highest failure rates in statistics for Pakistani students. Even those who have taken graduate level statistics or econometric courses in Pakistan arrive with no proficiency in any statistical software. From psychology to geography, from engineering to epidemiology, statistical analysis is the workhorse of the western research establishment. My advice is to take an online course in applied statistical analysis from foreign institutes, such as, before you embark on your journey for higher education.

Have $35,000 handy While you may qualify for scholarships or bursaries in the second year of your graduate program, you are most likely to receive almost no, or very little, funding in the first year of your studies.  For this reason you must have at least $35,000 with you of which approximately $15,000 will be the tuition fee and the rest will be living expenses.

Given that most Pakistani students are not familiar with the western education system, they should avoid working on or off-campus to allow them sufficient opportunity to familiarise with the new pedagogy. This will only happen if one has access to sufficient funds to bear expenses for at least a year.

Don’t get engaged or married the week before your departure The moment it becomes obvious to parents that their son or daughter may soon be departing for higher education, they try to have the soon-to-be-leaving offspring at least engaged, if not married, just in time before they embark for higher education abroad. This results in unnecessary emotional baggage that many Pakistani students end up travelling with. Leaving a fiancé or a newly-wed spouse behind takes its toll and more often than not, their grades and research suffer.

Parents engineer such moves to pre-empt their child from finding a spouse abroad. My advice is to avoid last-minute nuptials. This results in serious emotional hardship for the student who is often without friends and family for the first semester abroad. Instead of being a source of emotional support, often families become the source of emotional hardship for young scholars in foreign lands.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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