Pakistan has great potential in transnational education: Canadian envoy

ISLAMABAD: Syed Azhar Husnain Abidi, a renowned educationist and education analyst, spoke to new Canadian High Commissioner in Pakistan Perry John Calderwood with special emphasis on education. Below is an extract of the interview highlighting important areas.

Q: I understand this is your first posting in Asia, particularly South Asia in your diplomatic career. Keeping in view Pakistan’s strategic positioning in this region, how do you think this job is different from your other appointments?

Ans: Yes, you are right. This is my first posting in Asia or the South Asian region. I have spent many years abroad but mostly in Latin America, so I am discovering a new part of the world and I’m very happy to be here in Pakistan. Sometimes I say I have an easy job because I’m so well received by Pakistanis. Canada has a very good image in Pakistan and we have a very good relationship that dates back to early years since independence it includes development assistance programming, trade and investment relations, political ties. And in the area of education, there is a growing activity so I’m very pleased to be part of this ongoing effort to build and increase the relationship between our two countries including in the education sector.

Q: Canada has shown an impressive growth in international students since the first ever international education strategy advisory panel met in 2011. The statistics revealed at CBIE Conference Halifax in December 2016 show almost 400,000 international students in Canada, though barely one percent of this came from Pakistan. Could you please enlighten us on some of the reasons for the stagnation if not actual decrease?

Ans: You are correct in saying that the number of foreign students is up. I think it’s over 400,000 now something like 4,500 Pakistani students which as you pointed out may be 1% of the total. We are in fact seeing the number grow. Pakistan is now the 13th largest source of foreign students and I believe as we look to the years ahead Pakistan will move up from 13th position to 10th and may be 7th or 6th given the size of Pakistan and the size of the population and the fact there’s growing numbers of Pakistanis who are looking for opportunities to study abroad. Well, the numbers are still the modest, I feel momentum and potential there to increase the number of Pakistani students in Canada.

Q: Since you have now referred to Pakistan being the 13th focused country for Canada, I was looking at the numbers of some other focused countries/priority countries, Brazil, Maxico and Veitnam. I don’t see they are significantly higher than Pakistan, but the Canadian universities are spending more money on these markets?

Ans: Yes, you may be right, but when I speak to Canadian universities, some of them whom I met last year in Canada, I found strong interest in Pakistan as a country of focus. However, each of our institutions of course decide their priorities based on their marketing budgets, diversification of their courses and availability of their staff etc. I am happy to say that Canada is viewed very positively and I hear very positive comments about our country from so many Pakistanis that I meet. I expect to see a growing number of Pakistani students considering Canada as a destination of study.

Q: It is hard work to recruit international students for all stakeholders-Canadian universities, their representatives and agencies alike. If their visas are not issued at the end of the day, their hard word is lost. Student visa permit rejections of Pakistani’s particularly in 2016 and 2017 were very high and furthermore the visa section was moved to Abu Dhabi. How would you comment?

Ans: Well, let me say on the visa, we have a department of immigration that is responsible for issuing visas and that department takes decisions on the basis of each individual application and it is not something that I am personally responsible for. I don’t have the power over the decision of visas. I think you are correct to mention that decision was taken by the immigration department – a couple of years ago to centralize the process of immigration for a number of countries and to locate it to Abu Dhabi. It is not only for Pakistan but for the entire region, which has resulted in more efficient services.

While a number of visas were rejected the good news is many Pakistanis do receive visas in Canada because as you said over 4,000 Pakistanis are currently studying in Canada.

Our immigration department is doing its utmost to improve and perfect the visa application process with the view to ensuring all bona fide students who have the means and the capacity to sustain stay in Canada to get their visas.

So there’s a commitment to do their best in that regard from the perspective of the students. The only advice, I think I can give in terms of the process-the student has to be accepted by a Canadian institution in order to apply for the visa and in applying for the visa the student has to demonstrate that he or she or his or her family has the means to support his or her stay in Canada.

Q: In this era of knowledge economy with a premium on cutting edge knowledge, R&D, innovation and international collaboration/ TNE, education diplomacy is becoming increasingly important. What do you say and how do you envisage playing this role in your current assignment?

Ans: Firstly, I am encouraged that I am seeing some interest that there are a number of agreements in place and programmes in place between universities and the two countries. For example, the Aga Khan University Karachi has partnerships with several universities in Canada.

For example, there’s one with the University of Calgary in the area of Nursing there was recently an MoU signed between the Lahore’s Government College University and Guelp University in Ontario to develop a database of DNA of all the plants and animals in Pakistan so that’s one of the research areas.

These are only a few examples, but I think you are right we are only scratching the surface and there’s a potential of doing a lot more. And it’s our job collectively and everyone is committed to this cause, including myself to get the word out to our institutions in Canada and in Pakistan to encourage them to look at opportunities. At the end of the day our institutions in Canada are autonomous so it’s not me who decides or dictates that a particular university in Canada must develop a partnership in Pakistan. But what I can do and I am doing is when I travel to Canada I meet with universities and tell them about the potential in Pakistan and to develop their awareness about your country and the opportunities that exist. I think we have to get that word out to Canadians and Pakistanis and to encourage them to get in contact with each other and start to talk about what they can be doing together. I am optimistic that we will see things happen, but it will take time, of course.

Q: One way to exercise this education diplomacy would be to attract the best and the brightest Pakistani minds to institutions of higher learning in Canada. For example, through Fulbright and Chevening scholarships by USEFP and British Council for Pakistani students. Can this be done by Canada’s maple leaf or any other similar scholarships for Pakistani talent?

Ans: At the present time as far as I know I’m not aware if any Pakistan specific scholarships that are offered by the High Commission. The government of Canada has a few scholarship programmes that are universal they are open to foreign students from around the world and many of our universities have scholarship programmes which for the most part tend to be open to everyone. For example, the University of Toronto which is highly respected Canadian University I think they offer 37 scholarships per year to foreign students and last year three Pakistanis secured them of 37, so almost 10% but the numbers are really smaller and it would be nice to see greater numbers.

I think your ideas are interesting to explore ways to develop Pakistan-specific scholarships and I think it’s worthy of consideration in terms of the Federal Government of Canada. I mentioned before our Development Assistance programme there were periods in the past when scholarships were part of the programme in a number of countries around the world we have tended to move away from scholarships.

In Pakistan right now we are focused on other things. There is a strong focus on improving the teaching of primary school levels where we are very active. I think talking to the universities and may be reaching out to the private sector and perhaps foundations, there may be ways to develop such scholarships and grants which can offer greater opportunities to students to study in Canada.

Q: While Canada wants to promote its Imagine Education in/Canada brand, the ground reality is that there is no federal education authority/ministry in the country. Even international education is in the hands of the provinces and territories. How would you ensure that this will not prevent any worthwhile initiative from the Government of Canada?

Ans: I see you are very well informed about Canada. I’m not sure if I call it a barrier, but it is the reality that Canada is a federal system. We have clearly defined separation of responsibilities between the federal government and the provinces. Education for the most part falls in the provincial jurisdiction so by all means we have to be working and talking to the provinces as the federal role is somewhat limited but also many of these decisions in terms of launching specific projects and programmes as they come down to the level of the institutions itself.

In my experience, it’s often the key to inviting the interest of key people in the universities, get them interested about an opportunity and then things start to happen even at the level of the provinces. It’s not the government that really decides these things as the government can be involved in broad strategies, broad promotion, when it comes down to specific initiatives actually signed and implemented it at the level of institutions itself.

As I said earlier, I see the interest growing and with the continuous efforts by all of us who are keen to see this happen I think we will see results in the years ahead.

Q: Canada has introduced co-op degrees, which has greatly helped in overcoming its shortage of skilled manpower and increased prospects and graduate employability. Pakistan has a similar situation with a bulge of educated youth unemployed. Such an initiative is therefore needed in Pakistan. Would you like to give a message or advice on this to policy makers and education managers in Pakistan?

Ans: Well, I do agree with you the co-op prorgrammes are quite widespread in Canada. Now I remember when I studied in the earlier 80’s the concept was really just developing back then.

However, now they have become popular. The reason is because the students who are sent on the co-op programme when they graduate they have practical experience as well as the academic knowledge so that they replace the traditional model in terms of transitioning into the work force. When they apply for jobs, employers are impressed to see that not only do they have the university degree but they worked for 3 months or 6 months or a year or whatever as part of their programme in a concrete way-hands-on kind of way.

I think it’s an excellent model. We have seen countries around the world which are often disconnected between the education and the needs of economy and in many countries we have seen a lot of people/students getting a university education and then finding themselves very disappointed when they graduate and still finding it difficult in getting a job. So it’s especially in the technical area but not just technical areas. It’s so important to ensure that the education has that link to the needs of the economy in order to ensure that students are graduating and are able to move into the job market.

I think Pakistan has that challenge as many other countries do have. On one hand a lot of people who are unemployed and at the same time there are many employers who probably struggle to find people with the right skills. So I think that cooperative model is a very good one. I think it’s an interesting idea to pursue the possibilities of bringing that model to Pakistan.

Q: While Canada is providing support in primary health and teacher training, it also has state-of-the-art academic and research programmes in Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, ICT. HEC’s vision 2025 also calls for research in these areas. How do you think we can go about doing it for the benefit of both countries?

Ans: I think these are all very important and interesting areas. For your information we have an organization which you may have heard of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), it was funded by the Government of Canada. That is an autonomous organization whose role is to fund research that benefits development.

It has been active in Pakistan for many years in funding research including Climate change, its potential impact on the country like Pakistan, so that’s an example of some of the activities that we have done.

But again, there’s a great scope of doing a lot of things and challenges to get the institutions and the individuals interested and then to find funding. Often these things come down to funding in order to make things happen.

Q: Thank you very much in the end, I would like you to give a message to people who are going to Canada as student and becoming part of the education sector. What would you give a message to students from Pakistan?

Ans: Well, my message to the students going to Canada is to “Welcome to Canada” in advance and as I have said earlier, we are so delighted to have so many Pakistani students because they really do enrich the educational institutions to the communities where they are located more interesting places. Pakistani students bring their culture, their experience, their perspectives and they really make our universities a better experience for everyone.

(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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