Balochistan makes up for 44 percent of Pakistan’s land, making it the largest province of Pakistan. It is one of those parts of the country that is a rugged terrain yet one of the most beautiful area, that is still to be tapped for natural and human resources.
Several challenges blended with conspiracy theories have often marred development in Balochistan, but in recent years the resolve to bring it at par with other provinces has toughened. Lately, the sector that has been in focus in the province is higher education. Making all-out efforts, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has invested around Rs32 billion in development and recurrent budget since 2002 to date. This has contributed a decent increase in student enrolment as in 2002 it was a mere 3,700 but is 29,600 at present.
This change did not appear out of the blue rather is a result of the hard work that was put in by HEC, local academia, and above all, the political leadership that has always pushed Balochistan’s case in and outside parliament in an encouraging manner. The prioritisation of the province can be gauged from the fact that from 1947 to 2002 there were only two universities. After the establishment of the HEC in 2002, six new universities and eight sub-campuses were set up, while construction of others is underway. Other initiatives are no less than a breath of fresh air for the province that has seen years of conflict, strife and disregard that has discredited this land of passionate and committed people.
The story of HEC-Balochistan is oft ignored by the media that is already mired in other issues. But the province’s higher education has started rising to a level where its residents will soon start reaping dividends, making them a part of the province and country’s development. As per Balochistan’s development portfolio, Rs13 billion are being spent on infrastructure and expansion in all varsities and sub-campuses of the province, with Rs2.45 billion being spent on human resource development.
Sardar Bahadur Khan University’s campuses in Noskhi, Pishin and Khuzdar are already operational, while Lasbela University’s campus in Wadh was inaugurated recently and another for Dera Murad Jamali is in the pipeline. University of Balochistan’s campuses in Kharan, Mastung and Pishin too are providing education at the doorstep for inhabitants of the areas. Turbat University’s sub-campus in Gwadar is the first of its kind in the area.
Under a special initiative 3,750 scholarships have been marked exclusively for Balochistan, out of which 1,937 have already been awarded. This package includes scholarships for overseas PhDs, indigenous PhDs and graduates and undergraduates. Currently there is one private-sector university and seven public-sector universities in the province. The public-sector institutions include University of Balochistan in Quetta, Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology in Khuzdar, Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences in Quetta, Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences in Uthal, Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta, University of Turbat and University of Loralai.
Similarly, to support students financially and equip them with the latest technologies essential for education, the government has started fee reimbursement and laptop distribution schemes. The step was taken to remove any financial hindrances being faced by students of the less developed areas of the province; so far, Rs922 million have been reimbursed to 23,000 students of Masters, MS and PhD programmes.
To bring Balochistan’s varsities at par with IT and innovation as in other parts of the country, under the Pakistan Education & Research Network – a project of the HEC – facilities of video conferencing, digital library, free Microsoft software access and WiFi availability have been ensured in seven varsities. The facilities will soon be extended to the sub-campuses of these universities. Furthermore, the HEC is funding and supporting two study centres and one centre for excellence in the University of Balochistan.
But all these steps and achievements of the HEC get dwarfed by the real challenge: primary education in the province. The numbers released by several government and private-sector organisations about literacy rate, out-of-school children and the state of facilities in existing schools show that efforts to address challenges in primary and secondary education should be prioritised with a more focused approach.
Among several challenges that the higher education sector encounters in Balochistan specifically, is that a good number of approved scholarships or other preferential offers are not completely availed by its youth and those who do, struggle to reach even the minimum level. This has been traced to weak primary schooling that merits an education emergency. An emphatic, resourceful and committed effort will help grapple with the growing challenge at a time when regional and global challenges are hovering over us with abrupt vicissitudes of fortune.
There still remains much to be done, but I personally find politicians, bureaucrats and youth of Balochistan committed to bringing about a change in their area. I foresee that in the coming years the province will be a hub of development. Only educated, qualified and professional residents of the province will make most of the opportunity that will open its gateway through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other plans that are afoot. A strong and empowered Balochistan translates into a prosperous and stable Pakistan – and that is our aim.
The writer is the chairman of the Higher Education Commission.