The burden of foreign education

The writer is a PhD candidate and coordinator of South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney

The writer is a PhD candidate and coordinator of South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney

One of the major practices of colonial powers back in the day was to destroy and disrupt the local economy, structures and institutions. In the vacuum that was created, the consumption of foreign products and ideas was made possible. Colonisation, in other words, was as much about finding markets and consumers for industrial Europe as it was about finding natural resources.

Not much has changed since then. While decolonisation may have officially taken place, foreign education institutes are benefitting from the erosion of Pakistan’s education sector. An education system that once produced leaders of stature, leading bureaucrats and a noble laureate is barely able to produce semi-skilled workers today. What went wrong in the education sector is another debate, but its consequences in the form of Pakistan losing billions of dollars every year to foreign countries, the extreme pressure on parents and the divide in society are matters of grave concern.

Hardworking parents in Pakistan are spending sizeable amounts of their incomes on their children’s private education — something that should be free to begin with through public schools. Primary and high school fees are sky-rocketing and are unchecked — education has become a thriving business for many with the decline of public schools. Even worse is that millions of dollars are being added to the British economy every year through the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels system — the same money that should go into improving our own system. Unfortunately, instead of fixing our eroding institutions, we have come down to finding quick solutions. No electricity? Get a generator. No good local education? Enroll for ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, or send the kid abroad for higher education.

The trend in higher education is even more troubling. Every year thousands of Pakistani students are going abroad for higher education benefitting Western economies to the tune of billions of dollars all in the hope of ensuring a bright future. Higher education is no more a luxury like it was back in the 1990s. Today, it has become a necessity to survive in the job market that is dominated by a sudden influx of foreign-educated students. The tightening of immigration policies has pushed these foreign-educated kids, whose parents could support their education, back into the Pakistan market thereby creating a divide — a new education elite coming from abroad and preferred by employers.

Those in local universities are at the suffering end. Ultimately, the pressure is on the parents, especially those from middle-income and low-income groups, as they realise that the only way their child stands a chance for acquiring a job or upward mobility is through foreign education. Chasing this dream, parents in Pakistan are selling their property, land and assets to secure the future of their child, not realising that foreign education has become a booming business for countries that are actually struggling, including the UK, Canada and Australia, which now eye foreign students to boost their economies. This can been seen today with the diminishing entry standards of top British schools, including Oxford and Cambridge, which now allow mediocre students into their graduate programmes, with candidates who can pay the fees in entirety prioritised over all else. In fact, many of the graduate programmes at such top schools are especially designed as cash cows to raise funds for universities.

While parents spend their lifelong savings to give their children the opportunity to avail foreign education, immigration policies in most developed countries are making it impossible for international students to stay on after graduation, find work and settle in greener pastures. In other words, the chance of a good return on education investment is becoming nil. The recent UKBA policy on immigration is one such example of a country being solely interested in international students adding dollars to its economy, who in return get nothing more than a piece of paper. This is not very different from the colonial tax imposed by the British Raj poor Indian farmers. The only difference with this modern style of colonial pressure is that poor people in developing countries are succumbing to it voluntarily as they don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

Today, a foreign qualification has little to do with education. For universities, it is a chance to make quick money. For students, it is about fitting on the right side of the growing divide in the country. Not only is Pakistan losing billions of dollars every year because of our dysfunctional system, there is also growing social unrest that is likely to erupt soon.