Germany To Boost Trade Cooperation With Pakistan: envoy

German Ambassador Ina Lepel says education, science & technology to be among key areas; visa slots to be increased to facilitate genuine Pakistani students

I had the opportunity of interviewing German Ambassador to Pakistan H.E. Ms Ina Lepel exclusively for The News and Jang.

Ms Ina Lepel, a career diplomat, has held several important positions internationally and at home, including her tenure as Deputy Head of Mission, German Embassy in Islamabad from 2006 to 2009.

Ina Lepel has a very positive attitude in representing her country and enhancing the current bilateral relationship between Germany and Pakistan. In the interview, she stressed her country’s desire to strengthen bilateral relations between Pakistan and Germany with special focus on education, science and technology and energy generation.

Sharing her impression of Pakistan’s education system she rightly pointed out the growing culture of rote learning among schoolchildren instead of ‘individual problem solving skills’.

The German ambassador also assured support to genuine Pakistani students seeking higher education opportunities in Germany in respect of processing their visas on time. She advised the students to ensure that they fill their visa applications as early as possible. She also said more visa appointment slots shall be made available in view of the increasing number of students travelling to Germany.

Ms Ina Lepel also said the recent Paris attacks and the current security condition in the Schengen countries would have no impact on genuine Pakistani students travelling to Germany or moving into the Schengen area with a valid student permit.

According to her, Germany is the second largest partner in trade with Pakistan in Europe and Germany will do whatever possible to strengthen these ties.

The following is the excerpt from her interview.

Syed Abidi: How do you feel to be back to Pakistan? What kind of improvement do you see in relationship between the two countries?

Ina Lepel: I am happy to be back. Islamabad has grown a lot. The city has become more lively. And of course our relations have also become even more broad-based since last time I was here.

Syed Abidi: So under your new tenure, what areas you are looking forward to in terms of further collaborations between the two countries?

Ina Lepel: I would see three areas—trade, development cooperation and education. Slowly but truly Pakistani students are discovering studies in Germany especially higher studies.

Syed Abidi: Did you find any difference in the quality of education that you feel especially in terms of higher education in Pakistan.

Ina Lepel: I would say it’s very varied. There are some top notch institutes that can really compete with the best and the brightest, there are some who are struggling and there are some who are not even fine. And I would say that especially in the schooling system of course there are some issues that it is very difficult for children of poor families to get good education. It’s a matter of concern that so many children who are completely out of schools. I also know some families who don’t have much education themselves but they want to spend some money to make it better for their children. They are struggling because they don’t know which school is worth their hard earned money and quality control does not seem to be very consistent. And then one issue that has not changed since I was here the last time and which I think can really be an issue for competitiveness in the future is the focus on rote learning rather than individual problem solving skills.

Syed Abidi: Germany is now our second largest partner in the Europe in terms of trade. What are the impediments to move further?

Ina Lepel: There is a lot of potential absolutely but there also seem to be some issues of competitiveness still for the Pakistani economy. One of the bottlenecks is energy.  So in our development programme, we are trying to make our contribution to addressing that. We have in the past invested in the hydroelectric and these projects are still ongoing and we are also now focusing very much on renewable energies and the efficiency—an area where there is good potential and we have a project that gives advice at enterprise level on how energy resources can be used more efficiently.  Another issue is labour standards. We have projects where industries can get advice at factory level on how to improve productivity and at the same time comply better with international standards. That also improves competitive edge of these companies because nowadays in Europe this becomes a marketing factor. People are ready to spend more money on the product that they can feel has been produced on the international standards. We are also working on skills training because finding qualified labour can also be a bottleneck for the companies.

Syed Abidi: Germany has a great potential in terms of engineering and science & technology. How do you think that this kind of support provided to Pakistan is going to help us? Is there anything in the pipeline?

Ina Lepel: Most of the Pakistani students who go to Germany for higher education actually choose such fields to study. So when they come back, hopefully, they will be able to be academic teachers in the institutions that exist or that are going to be created. These students can also build on relations with their German alma mater to create research cooperation or to send may be German professors over for short-term teaching; so it will be for long-term. All these things come into being by contacts, and not by somebody at central level who decides this or that should happen but by persons who get together like researchers who find a field of common interest to both and a development project that makes sense and then successfully get funding for it.

Syed Abidi: The numbers that we have seen in student mobility has significantly moved towards Germany mainly because you have some of the top universities in Germany and also that you offer tuition-free education to Pakistanis. There have been problems in terms of students getting visa slots and appointments and that significant rise to our statistics has been above 30% especially considering that UK and US which used to be our prime destinations has slowed down in terms of the cost and the tuition they have. How do you feel could that be possible to expand this area in terms of facilitating our students?

Ina Lepel: We are definitely trying. We are in a way becoming a victim of our own success because suddenly the numbers went up so much so that it became difficult at one point. Still I would not say it’s very difficult.

The advice I would give to any student is just to factor in a lot of time for application because the whole procedure from applying to getting admissions to go in through all the formalities of visa application takes a lot of time. But if the interested students start about a year before the course is going to start then that student should do perfectly ok.

Syed Abidi: Most of the Pakistani students face problems with regard to visa appointment slots. So increasing a little bit of staff here or slots would help them?

Ina Lepel: We already have increased staff. However, one frequent misunderstanding is that students wait until they have their last paper together before they apply for a slot. What they should do is apply for the slot for the time when they think they have all the paper work together. People who do that have no problem.

Syed Abidi: If we compared universities in Germany with other countries such as UK and USA their academic institutions are on the front coming down having collaborations and research links and academic links. You see the German universities have not been that aggressive. What is your message?

Ina Lepel: German universities completely work on a different business model. The universities in USA and UK have to actively campaign for the students because they are their source of income. In German universities, that is not the case because they get their income completely from public funding. So they don’t have the incentive to go and campaign for students and neither do they have budget because it’s not something they need. The biggest competitive advantage of German universities is that they are tuition-free and that fact is reasonably well-known.

The down side is that the German universities since they are tuition-free are also lean in terms of structures. So they don’t have staff to assist students every step of the way for further admissions and administrative issues. That’s something students have to be aware of because it is a different philosophy what the students may expect from US and UK.

Syed Abidi: How do you think the recent Paris attacks and the security conditions in Europe going to affect student mobility, if any?

Ina Lepel: I don’t think it will affect the students’ mobility. The German universities have a long-tradition of being open to foreigners. Out of 2.7 million students who are studying in Germany about 11 percent of them are from other countries; so I think that is very normal feature and I think people from this part of the world can easily feel at home while on campuses.

As far as mobility in the Schengen areas is concerned there are misunderstandings. The reintroduction of boarder controls at some boarders does not mean that the boarders are closed. It just means that it may take more time to cross them because now like before everybody has to show the papers. But if the students have the valid student residence permit he/she can still visit all Schengen countries without having to ask for additional visa.

Syed Abidi: What would be your message to the Pakistani students who are going to Germany?

Ina Lepel: I would advise them to really benefit from the full set of choices. There are about 400 universities offering large number of courses; so the students should really avail themselves full set of possibilities. There are universities of applied sciences that focus more on application and skills and the regular universities that are more research focused. There are programmes in German and English and students should really look what they want.

The second as I already said the time factor. Normally students who begins their last year are already looking what they might do after and that is the time exactly they should start surfing the web for opportunities in Germany. Finally the student should be prepared to work for himself, stand on his feet but also to reach out to students in Germany when he or she is here to make friends or have mutual support. And I guess finally the students who go to Germany work hard but not forget to enjoy life to travel to get to know Germany and make friends.

(Syed Azhar Husnain Abidi is a renowned educationist in Pakistan, with more than 25 years of experience as provider of education counselling services. He has represented Pakistan in over 100 national and international seminars, conferences and fora. He is the recipient of the most coveted civil award Tamgha-e-Imtiaz).

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