Op-Ed: Community colleges can be the solution for Pakistan

Education helps societies form a cohesive, aware and just populace that is aware of its rights and duties and utilizes this awareness for the greater progress of the nation. Economically speaking, in an increasingly globalized world, education has come under increasing pressure to focus on real-world skills that train and increase the productivity of the workforce so it can compete on the global stage rather than focus simply on theoretical paradigms.

In Pakistan, the total number of universities has gone up considerably in the past 15 years and so has overall enrollment, between 2002 and 2008, increased by 2.34 times according to the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Despite all these figures, post-secondary education is restrictive: only five percent of Pakistan’s total population has a degree-level education while roughly 40 percent of the total population is illiterate. It is evident that the current system is not working and needs to be supplemented by a more pragmatic approach towards higher education.

Community colleges can overcome the limitations of the conventional four years that universities have. Termed as people’s colleges in the US because of their affordability, the success of these two-year community colleges has been celebrated globally. As more and more countries realise the importance of accessible and faster post-secondary education these colleges have become a viable alternative path towards the intellectual growth of a nation. In the US, almost half of all students enrolled in the post secondary level are enrolled in two-year community colleges. Earlier this year, Barack Obama announced plans to make these colleges free for a large segment of the populace, an action that signifies the importance of these colleges.

For Pakistan, these community colleges would have even greater benefits. First of all, they can provide training to our adult society, which never had the opportunity to go to university or even high school. Utilising unconventional tools, such as part-time learning, it can open new doors that would allow individuals to expand their knowledge and hence their career prospects. In essence, these colleges can give Pakistanis a second chance if they missed a chance to receive a formal education. In the US, 60 percent of students entering community colleges need remedial courses usually in Maths and English. Pakistan can go beyond offering adult students merely high school diplomas.

Secondly, these colleges would help individuals who want or need to learn new skills, known as workforce retraining. Community colleges have the capability to provide a fast-paced response to skill shortages. In rapidly changing market needs, a four-year university degree is a large time commitment. Instead, community colleges have worked with industrial partners throughout the world to provide fast one-year or two-year diplomas and certificates aimed at training the workforce in skills needed at that specific time by the specific industry. Combining vocational and academic training these colleges can provide a pathway for Pakistan to move from the low skilled to the highly skilled workforce over time.

Thirdly, it is crucial to note that universities are too expensive for a large segment of the population. A majority of households cannot spare thousands of rupees every semester on education. This currently forces the majority to opt out of receiving any form of post-secondary education, a fact that pushes them into the poverty trap. Community colleges have provided cheaper education in other countries; in the US, universities cost 10 times more than community college education. These colleges have also served as an affordable gateway to a bachelor’s degree with many students transferring to four-year degrees after completing these colleges. The low cost of community colleges can also direct students to explore new career pathways, giving individuals the freedom to achieve their human potential.

It is crucial for Pakistan to increase its upward economic mobility, helping the most periphery of communities to establish sustainable and higher income livelihoods. Rather than focusing simply on building universities, Pakistan needs to focus on providing alternative paths to education, including incorporating community colleges into its higher education framework. Getting some form of post-secondary education can push millions of people into better-paying jobs, hence breaking the cycle of poverty they have been born into.

Community colleges would provide viable prospects for students to work towards a university degree, a place to obtain a vocational skill, earn affordable diplomas for a career progression or change, and to develop life skills. In an innovation-centric world, any nation that seeks to develop needs to build a skilled labor force that is technically trained to meet the demands of the present and the future. A two-year community college programme would provide not only a second chance to millions of Pakistanis who may not have educational expertise to get into a good four-year university but also a cost and time sensitive alternative for individuals who want to gain pragmatic training to enter the workforce.

Pakistan cannot succeed if a majority of its citizens are untrained to meet the needs to compete globally. We think of our education system as existing in an economic vacuum but instead, it is the single most important factor that determines our economic might. Community colleges have been the backbone of North American societies for over a century where they have built a globally competitive and innovative workforce. The time has come for Pakistan to take a more pragmatic and egalitarian approach to higher education, which will build its middle class rather than preserve the elite.

This was published as part of my weekly columns by the Daily Times newspaper in Pakistan here on November 6th 2015. You can follow me on Twitter here. Love your feedback!

Published by Shahrukh Wani

Economist at International Growth Centre, University of Oxford.

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