Breaking barriers, building bridges through the Gateway

“Nearly all Pakistani vice-chancellors, rectors and senior higher education leaders have received training in the UK since 2010”

A recent study has revealed that University College London generated £9.9 billion of economic impact across the UK in 2018/19. This equates to the trade boost delivered by the 2012 London Olympics. According to the UCL management, this could only be achieved in collaboration with the varsity’s partners as 77% of UCL’s academic partners are based outside London.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, and higher education is no exception. This stands true for the tertiary education sector in Pakistan.

While the sector is growing fast – with more than 230 universities across Pakistan – the challenges of equitable access, quality and relevance continue to remind us of the potential this sector could possibly unleash and contribute back to society and the economy. A well-connected higher education sector can co-create, curate and cross-pollinate ideas, knowledge, experience, skills and learning across multiple platforms, and hence it is breathing, alive and always open for new interventions.

The British Council’s Pakistan-UK Education Gateway is an example of such a comprehensive and dynamic strategic partnership between the higher education sectors in both countries. The Gateway, is part of the British Council’s Going Global Partnerships that aims to strengthen higher education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training systems, enables research collaboration, internationalises institutions, enhances student outcomes, improves gender equality outcomes and supports inclusion.

Through collaborative programs in the last 15 years, over 165 institutional links around teaching, research, mentoring and science have been developed, involving over 1,500 senior researchers and 1,000 academics from both countries contributing to sustainable development goals. As part of the mentoring, leadership and governance programs, nearly all Pakistani vice-chancellors, rectors and senior higher education leaders have received training in the UK since 2010.

Advance HE UK has a played central role in establishing Pakistan’s first faculty development hub, the National Academy for Higher Education.

Shaheen Sardar Ali, the former Rector NAHE shared, The opportunity for NAHE trained early career academics to apply for a Fellowship of Advance HE, UK, is a dream come true. These are all public sector academics who would not otherwise have had access to apply and be facilitated an internationally recognised accreditation of their professional competence. We look forward to further fruitful collaboration with the British Council and Advance HE.”

At the moment, eight large-scale research projects between the UK and Pakistan, worth around £3 million, are active in contributing to local challenges in the areas of climate change, robotics, artificial intelligence, history and archaeology, medical and health sciences, food security and agriculture.

For example, Ruy Sebastian Bonillaat the University of Oxford and Sofia Akbar Tahirat Government College University Faisalabad are trying to devise efficient ways of energy conservation and distribution. Sheila MacNeil, University of Sheffield and Mohammad Yar at Comsats university are suggesting effective and affordable care for diabetic ulcers and burns injuries. These are just some of the numerous exciting examples of the ongoing work under the Gateway.

In July 2020, the British Council developed a new and practical policy around open and distance learning in response to Covid-19. The policy is being implemented across Pakistan, reaching out to a minimum of two million students. The blended learning models and criteria, created through the Gateway is helping higher education institutions in Pakistan to tailor their offers to meet the needs of learners and students. The framework will enable international partners to share their best practice and utilise the opportunity to engage with the huge talent that Pakistani students offer.

Realising the huge potential of quality transnational educational provision, the policy has also helped to reduce confusions and lack of clarity around TNE. The new guide on TNE will enable international education providers to offer programs of international quality in Pakistani universities. Several UK institutions like the University of London have already approached Pakistani partners to explore the best ways of delivering TNE courses and programs.

Mobility has been a key focus of the Gateway. Twenty-one travel and exploratory grants have enabled over 50 faculty members to explore further partnerships. More than 60 researchers have won travel grants from Pakistan to develop their research linkages under different travel grants programs and over 1,500 researchers have been trained in developing sustainable research networks.

Addressing long-debated issues around quality, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and Higher Education Commission are working together to help establish quality mechanisms that will benefit around 50,000 faculty members in Pakistan’s higher education sector.

To ensure Pakistani women have opportunities to continue with their studies in higher education, the Scottish Scholarship scheme has facilitated over 400 women. Pakistan’s first Female Universities Consortium, encouraging Women in STEM and education governance, is an example of what the Gateway is focusing on as a priority.

Despite all this, the aspirations of the Gateway are higher and bigger as the success so far also reminds us of the overwhelming scale that requires collective and consistent efforts at many levels.

I recall Sir Chris Husbands, the former vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University demanding “uniformity of outcomes” to cope with complex challenges. Perhaps, the Pakistan-UK Education Gateway using the best of the two countries is a starting point to seek collective power in helping the global university sector to nurture and grow and realise its true potential.

About the author: Nishat Riaz is Director Education at the British Council, Pakistan.