Pakistan being the sixth most populous nation in the world with the highest youth population, in fact more than half of the population is below 25 years of age, has been the focus for most OECD’s countries looking to attract international students. As a result, approximately 50,000 students cross borders in the pretext of studying abroad or at least exploring such opportunities. At present more than 5 million students study worldwide who are classified by the United Nations as “International Students”. This number is expected to rise to 8 million by 2025 according to a recent forecast by the OECD. The majority of these students hail from South Asia led by China and followed by India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries in the region.
Traditionally, students from Pakistan chose United States, United Kingdom and Australia as their preferred choices. But this pattern has significantly changed following the terrorist attack in the US on September 11, 2001. The numbers from the Pakistan to US declined for a short period, but Pakistan still continues to be among the leading source countries of foreign students in UK, America, Europe, Australia and most recently the new emerging higher education destinations in the European Union, such as Germany, Sweden and the Baltic States mainly (due to their liberal asylum and settlement laws).
The purpose of this article is to provide an insight on study abroad options to our youth and to appraise and remind the policy makers on the importance of international student mobility from Pakistan, the push and pull factors that govern this rather complex issue and the implications that evolve around the business of student consultancy so that more informed decisions could be made.
As a career counsellor and adviser operating for more than two and a half decades, I had an opportunity of closely observing and evaluating the growth of this business and the changing patterns of Pakistani outbound student mobility. If we try to analyse these trends from the lens of three key factors spread over the past 15 years between 2001 to 2016, the first phase was the terrorist attack of 2001 which clamped abrupt restrictions over Pakistani students in many countries particularly US and North America. The second phase has been the global financial recession which brought financial motivation for recruiting international students. The third and the most recent include the slump in the Chinese economy, Brexit and the change of government at the White House.
The Pakistani student market continued to remain positive and attractive to most countries with United Kingdom, Australia, United States, EU, Germany and Canada being the most favorite destinations in the recent past. However, these destinations do not translate the exact trends when it comes to Pakistan, which is mostly navigated by the huge mushrooming of education consultants and agents from the early 1990’s to the 2016. A survey conducted by my team of experts, not too long ago, shows the growth of these education consultants and almost 4,000 or more education consultants, agents or advisors were found to be active though more than 60pc of them are neither registered nor possess an office, staff or facility to deliver they are claiming for. The out of the proportion growth of this business is mainly attributed to the lucrative returns against unjustified processing and consultancy tariffs designed by these agents to rip off the people of their hard earned money.
The increasing unemployment, poverty disparity in education, lack of university places, economic crisis, political instability, poor job opportunities and above all security and safety conditions are few compelling reasons for the youth of Pakistan particularly graduates to explore pursuing higher education and settlement opportunities abroad. Hence the study abroad fever in Pakistan continues to be on the rise.
The Pakistan student market has three main categories. Firstly, those who belong to elite and rich class of which most of them pursue foreign qualifications or education systems like CIE (British) or IB (American). Those who achieve higher grade automatically qualify for entry to top ranking /Ivy League universities with scholarships but those who tend to get lower grade, end up paying hefty fees in universities abroad almost 100pc of these are genuine students.
The second category of students is those who fall into middle class (income) and are mostly dependent on financial aid or scholarships that are offered by OECD countries for Pakistan. While the majorities of these are genuine students but would tend to choose countries where part time work is allowed and settlement opportunities exist following graduation.
The third category of students is the one who neither have the resources nor the qualifications and they work on a single agenda, “Let’s go abroad no matter where and how”. The majority of such students come from rural areas and do not have much information on study opportunities abroad. These can be identified as ideal clients that fall prey to the agents who work on DONE BASIS. A terminology generally used by these agents to define package of services that includes everything from initial enquiry to the grant of respective visa (producing all kinds of paperwork that is required to make them look like a genuine student). To fulfill their dreams and in an effort to leave Pakistan to find a second home abroad, they go to the extent of selling their movable or immovable properties or perhaps their entire savings and pay for the ‘package.’
It is interesting to note that a number of agencies that are responsible to monitor such people or businesses do get thousands of complaints, but there is not much they can do to control or monitor this business in the absence of a regulation or a law that could restrict such scrupulous outfits.
Since Pakistan is categorised as a potential source country for international students, the prospective universities from around the world frequently visit Pakistan competing each other to attract more student making this business of education consultancy more lucrative and important than ever before. However, due to the rapidly changing socioeconomic and security conditions in Pakistan and across the globe a visible shift is seen in SDM (student decision making) a phenomenon that is a vital indicator of market trends and choice of student destination. This is based on the kind of questions and queries students ask when deciding the destination for their studies or a university and these questions keep on changing from time to time and interestingly the following comparative table shows how these top 10 questions have changed priorities in the last decade or so.
“Top 10 Factors Influencing Student Decision Making for Pakistani Students”
From Year 2001 to 2010
From Year 2011 to 2015
1: International Recognition of Qualifications
1: Scholarship and Financial availability
2: International Exposure
2: Visa Situation
3: Improved prospects and life style
3: Permission to work during studies
4: Permission to work during studies
4: Settlement opportunities after graduation
5: Settlement opportunities after graduation
5. International Recognition of Qualifications
6: Scholarship and financial availability
6: Family connections
7: Visa Situation
7: Improved Prospects and Life style
8: Proximity to current location
8: International Exposure
9: Family Connections
9: Improved Language Skills
10: Improved Language Skills
10: Proximity to current location
Pakistani students are known to be intelligent, hard working and brainy. A huge number of students every year score high merits and distinctions in international universities of repute. While several OECD countries have reviewed their student visa regulations for South Asian students in the recent past to restrict the flow of non-bonafide students, a large number of genuine Pakistani students still get their student permit refused due to lack of guidance and correct documentation. Among other countries, Canada has been one country that can be mentioned in this context. It is also the responsibility of our government to seriously consider regulating the student consultancy business. Above all try to develop a process and platform to train and certify these agents so that we can ensure the services they provide are aligned with international standards and norms. The student mobility from Pakistan can hence be monitored and controlled through these measures and perhaps we can stop what we call “brain drain”. (Recipient of Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, the writer is an educationist and Counsellor)