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December 3, 2016
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No brilliant mind left behind

Opinion

December 3, 2016

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I have always believed that the circumstance of birth must not decide the contours of an individual’s life or destiny. Sadly, however, I have seen it happen all too often – the most brilliant of minds getting buried under the sands of poverty, promising careers never even taking off for lack of a fair shot at life.

Life should be about equitable systematic fairness, and not unfair socio-economic discriminations. And to achieve this objective, a social equalizer must be in place. One that is not encumbered by the poverty of resources but is, instead, powered by the richness of minds. And what better social equalizer than education.

It has been my profound conviction that equal-access-to-equal-quality-education is the most potent social equaliser. Given economic disparities plaguing our society, we cannot realise the dream of inclusive and sustainable development unless we push open the doors of opportunities of quality education to the children of under-privileged sections of society.

Transformation of the educational landscape is much more than a personal desire to transform the future of the children of the country. It is also an unavoidable intervention if we are to claim a place of honour amongst the comity of nations. We live in a world run by knowledge economies and shaped by knowledge societies. Advanced human resource is now a proven guarantee of a country’s economic and intellectual supremacy.

Realising that every bright individual mind matters, the Punjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF) was launched in 2009 to enable economically disadvantaged but high-achieving students to pursue their academic aspirations. There cannot be a bigger crime than a smart child falling prey to economic realities and losing out in life just because his family could not afford to send him or her to a quality educational facility. The mere thought of even one bright student suffering this fate gives me sleepless nights.

This is why the PEEF is a manifestation of my government’s commitment to leave no smart child behind. It is my mission that no deserving child in Pakistan, not just Punjab, is denied quality education for lack of financial resources. The PEEF has already carved a place for itself by bringing a ‘quiet educational revolution’. Already, it is South Asia’s largest education endowment fund, and is being replicated both inside and outside Pakistan.

Started with a seed capital of Rs1 billion, today the fund has increased to Rs17 billion. So far, 150,000 scholarships worth Rs7.5 billion have been awarded to deserving girls and boys of Punjab. It is pertinent to mention that there is no gender discrimination in the selection of deserving candidates. The fund is set to achieve the target of 200,000 scholarships worth Rs11 billion by the end of current year.

By virtue of its national outreach, the PEEF is serving as an instrument to foster national harmony and solidarity. It is a unique scholarship programme of its kind whereby scholarships are being awarded to talented and deserving students of all federating units, including Azad Kashmir, Fata and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Scholarships under the PEEF are awarded on a merit-cum-need basis for various categories of students. The students are not required to go through the rigmarole of application but are selected by the PEEF itself.

An e-payment mode has been adopted for distribution of the grants of scholarship. In 2014, the Washington-based Global Donor Forum listed the PEEF among the top ten best practices in the public sector. This speaks volumes about the PEEF’s enviable performance and impeccable transparency in its financial and operational systems. Eighty percent of the scholarships are awarded on an open-merit basis while 20 percent of the scholarships are reserved for four categories of students: orphans, children with physical disabilities, minorities and children of government employees of grade 1-4. The reservation is meant for mainstreaming students belonging to even greater marginalised socio-economic strata of society.

The merit-based transparency of the entire process of selection of deserving candidates and distribution of scholarships under this multibillion-rupee scholarship programme has been ensured and endorsed by the collaboration of the Department for International Development (DfID) of the UK with the PEEF.

Under the PEEF-DfID scholarship programme 2013-2018, scholarships to the tune of Rs1.62 billion will be provided to 28,000 talented and deserving students for intermediate and graduation level education. Of these, 27500 scholarships have been earmarked for intermediate-level female students of 11 districts of southern Punjab. Five hundred graduation-level scholarships under the joint scholarship programme of PEEF and DfID are being provided for top-notch educational institutions such as Lums, FAST, GIKI and Comsats etc. So far a total of 33000 scholarships have been distributed under this joint venture.

In order to ensure transparency in financial dealings, the annual and biannual batch audits and financial audits are being conducted by renowned firms including A F Ferguson, Ernest & Young and Grant Thornton. The PEEF has launched ‘Shahbaz Sharif Merit Scholarship’ to promote research, innovation, and education. Under this scheme, 30 fully-funded foreign PhD scholarships have been made available for those students who are able to secure admission in the top 50 QS-ranked universities of the world. Likewise, 1000 Master-level scholarships have been offered to students who are accepted by any of the top 30 HEC-ranked universities in the country. For the current FY-2016-17, Rs 400 million have been set aside for both Master-and PhD-level scholarships. This amount will be doubled – Rs800 million – by next year.

Already, 33 students selected for PhD scholarships under Shahbaz Sharif Merit Scholarship are getting education in top 50 QS-ranked universities such as Cambridge, Kings College and Oxford. A high-powered          scholarship selection committee has been constituted to select students in the most transparent manner. This committee, which works under my direct supervision, consists of three vice chancellors, chairman of the Punjab Higher Education Commission, secretary of the Higher Education Department, and vice chairman and CEO of the PEEF.

The students who have been selected under this scholarship programme will also have the opportunity of a lifetime to carry out research in top research establishments of the world, some of which are run by Nobel laureates.

The PEEF is not just any routine scholarship programme. It is a fate-changing project, transforming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the country. The PEEF is an empowerment tool for the powerless, a source of hope for the hopeless. The magical inspirational tales of PEEF scholars, who have carved out successful careers through sheer brilliance and a helping hand by the fund, are truly heart-warming.

The Punjab Educational Endowment Fund is a success story and a model of human development that is realising the dreams of many who could never even dare to dream. The children of our beloved country rose to the occasion and did not disappoint. They rise to the challenge every day, and on their wings shall soar Pakistan.

 

The writer is the chief minister of Punjab.

Facebook.com/shehbazsharif

Twitter: @CMShehbaz

 

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