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Monday July 22, 2024

Pakistan’s skills report card

By Dr Ayesha Razzaque
July 13, 2023

The vast majority of 240-odd universities in the country are failing both of their missions: the idealistic goal of learning for learning’s sake, broadening horizons and personal enlightenment, and also the worldly objective of producing graduates that are skilled, employable, and productive citizens. Of course, universities do not carry all the blame — they have to work with the intake the school system feeds them.

As I have written about on prior occasions, for those with the requisite language skills, internet connectivity, and the ability to self-learn, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) by several providers help bridge the skills gap to achieve employability. Major MOOC providers are sitting on a goldmine of data from learners spanning the globe. For the last few years, Coursera — the biggest MOOC provider at 124 million subscribers — has been publishing an annual Global Skills Report. The 4,000 skills covered by its library of MOOCs are organized into a multi-level taxonomy. Broadly, however, those skills have been grouped into three broad categories: business, technology, and data science.

The report for 2023 was published a few days ago and covers 100 countries, including Pakistan. In the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills category, Pakistan contributed 642,562 learners on Coursera, the fourth highest, only behind India (around 6.0 million), the United States (around 4.6 million) and Nigeria (675,371). Another glimmer of positive news in Pakistan’s data is that year-over-year growth in enrollment for STEM skills stands at 79 per cent, the second highest globally, surpassed only by Nigeria at 98 per cent.

Countries are both ranked and rated for the skills proficiency of their learners. In the ranking, Pakistan stands 92 out of 100. The only countries ranked lower than Pakistan are Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, the Philippines, and Nigeria. For perspective, countries ranked above Pakistan include Uganda (90), Yemen (88), Nepal (80), Zimbabwe (77), Ethiopia (72), Bangladesh (73), and India (60).

Pakistan’s business skills index stands at 22 per cent while the Asia-Pacific region’s average is 41 per cent. In technology skills, Pakistan scored only 10 per cent versus a regional average of 49 per cent. In data science skills, Pakistan scored an abysmal 8.0 per cent against a regional average of 52 per cent. Not surprisingly, Pakistan is not featured as a country with strengths and opportunities, neither in the business nor technology nor data science skills categories in the region.

For its global analysis, the report rated skill levels of learners from countries into one of four categories (quartiles): From the top down, they are labeled ‘cutting-edge’ (100-75 per cent), ‘competitive’ (75-50 per cent), ‘limited’ (50-25 per cent), and ‘lagging’ (25-0 perc ent). Pakistan placed in the last quartile – that is: lagging. Countries in the lagging skills category are characterized by an average human capital index score of 52 per cent (against an average of 73 per cent in the cutting-edge category), average Internet access of 56 per cent (against 87 per cent in the cutting-edge category), and an average percentage of working age population registered on Coursera of 2.68 per cent (against 4.67 per cent in the cutting-edge category).

In addition to reporting data, the report offers seven key findings.

First, economic growth is tied to skill proficiency: Higher skill proficiency is correlated with economic advances and average GDP per capita (to be clear, correlation does not imply causation). That is what is largely driving the recent global conversation about education that is inclusive of skills.

Second, internet access is tied to economic opportunity: In addition to being a prerequisite for accessing MOOCs, internet access opens the door to remote and online white-collar work opportunities in tech and a growing number of other sectors. In Pakistan, in addition to internet access issues, we also have to contend with frequent internet closures triggered by political rallies and a growing list of other reasons.

The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) very recently issued a report (‘The Economic Cost of Internet Closure’) that puts the direct losses to businesses by one day’s Internet shutdown in Pakistan at Rs1.3 billion or 0.57 per cent of the daily GDP. Indirect losses are beyond this and not accounted for.

Third, learners in high-income countries are more likely to invest in learning human skills: To no surprise, learners in wealthier societies where jobs are at greater risk of automation tend to invest more in skills less easily automatable. Learners in middle- and low-income communities tend to invest in technical skills that can open the doors to global and remote work opportunities.

Fourth, learners with postgraduate education are most likely to invest in AI-related skills: this is not surprising given that a deep enough understanding of artificial intelligence and machine learning requires proficiency in algorithms, statistics, and multiple branches of mathematics. Furthermore, putting that knowledge to work requires proficiency in programming. In most countries, certainly in Pakistan, education systems only expose learners to these areas at the college/university level.

Fifth, many countries are closing the gender gap in online learning: the global average of women learners on Coursera stands at 43 per cent. Against this backdrop, women make up only 16 per cent of learners from Pakistan. Countries closing the gender gap span the range of high- (Canada 55 per cent, Spain 50 per cent) to medium- (Mexico 51 per cent, Thailand 51 per cent) to low-income countries (Philippines 51 per cent).

Sixth, learners around the world are preparing for digital roles with Professional Certificates: in addition to the second-highest year-over-year growth in STEM enrollments, Pakistan also has the second-highest year-over-year growth in enrollment numbers for professional certificates at 228 per cent (only behind the Philippines at 253 per cent) while the global average growth is 46 per cent. Globally the US (22 million) and India (19 million) still lead in terms of absolute numbers.

Seventh, skilled talent can be found around the world: This enrollment data is a telescope showing us how MOOCs and global internet connectivity are working together to become instruments for leveling the availability of skills, producing talent hotspots in some unexpected parts of the world.

While the dataset the report is based on is certainly large, we have to be mindful that the insights are subject to selection bias: English language proficiency and access to the Internet and a credit card are not significant hurdles for learners in high-income countries. However, on the low-income end of the scale, these prerequisites can exclude many learners. This suggests that the difference between skill proficiencies could be even starker in a study with an unbiased sampling.

There were a few bright spots in the report; Pakistan has the fourth-highest enrollments for STEM skills, the second-highest year-over-year growth in STEM skills enrollments, and the second-highest year-over-year growth in the number of learners pursuing professional certificates.

In January of this year, the Higher Education Commission in partnership with Coursera announced the Digital Learning and Skills Enrichment Initiative (DLSEI). The DLSEI provides free access to Coursera’s courses to faculty and students of public and private universities, thus removing one key obstacle to willing learners — having a credit card. It is possible that the DLSEI is an enabling factor that contributed to the sudden rise in the number of learners from Pakistan. Either way, the programme is a welcome opportunity for motivated learners.

The data presented in Coursera’s Global Skills Report 2023 sheds light on the challenges faced by Pakistan’s education system and the need for urgent attention. It reveals that Pakistan lags in every skill category — business, technology, and data science.

These findings call for concerted efforts to address the shortcomings in Pakistan’s education system, improve internet access, and foster a culture of lifelong learning. By prioritizing skill development and embracing online learning platforms, Pakistan can enhance its human capital, drive economic growth, and build a more prosperous future for its citizens.

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.