To most Westerners, Pakistan is a turbulent and dangerous place but to British universities it's an attractive market in which to expand. A number have launched degree courses there in recent weeks, lured by the promise of large numbers of students – it has 100 million people under the age of 25 – and the desire to compete on the global stage. "We think there is a big market in that country," says Professor Mark Cleary, vice-chancellor of Bradford University, which started seven degree programmes at a Namal College in Pakistan in October 2009 near the geographically remote tribal territories. "Pakistan is a very challenging place but this is about giving something back to a country from which we recruit a lot of students directly."
Bradford has the advantage of a strong connection with the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who is the university's chancellor. Khan founded Namal College three years ago with a plan to equip young Pakistanis with better education through the University of Bradford. "When I was campaigning during the 2002 elections in Mianwali, I was appalled at the high level of unemployment among the youth," says Khan. "Hence I resolved to set up a technical college so that this youth could become employable."
Last year 68 students, including eight women, enrolled on degree courses in subjects such as mobile computing and web engineering and will be receiving Bradford degrees.
Other universities are also piling in, including Bedfordshire, which is running Masters' courses and some undergraduate degrees in partnership with the highly-regarded Comsats Institute of Information Technology in Pakistan. Last month Lancaster University announced that it too was going to be offering dual degrees with Comsats. Students at Comsats' Lahore campus will get the chance to sign up for degrees in computing, communications systems and business administration and receive both a Lancaster and a Comsats degree.
"This is part of an attempt to have a diversified set of geographical relationships in countries which we think in the long-term are going to be very important," says Paul Wellings, the Australian-born vice-chancellor of Lancaster. "We're not going to stop with the three countries in which we have partnerships, India, Malaysia and now Pakistan. There will be others."
The motivation for Lancaster's push into the Subcontinent and South East Asia is to get the university known around the world. Very few British universities have a name that is internationally known, the exceptions being Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.
"The plan is to have one-third of our students overseas by 2016," says Wellings. Lancaster has 1,000 students now in Kuala Lumpur and another 350 in India. The Indian student population will rise to 1,000 this autumn and the same pattern will be seen with the Pakistani operation. In four years' time there are expected to be 1,000 students on the dual degree.
"These things do ramp up quite fast," says Wellings.
The great advantage to British universities from this kind of enterprise is that they secure a steady flow of high-quality postgraduates from abroad. As Cleary puts it: "Long-term I don't think there's so much of a future in trying to keep growing your undergraduate numbers. What we're trying to do here is attract students to the UK for postgraduate programmes."
The advantage to Pakistan is that its students get a high-quality curriculum and quality assurance of the qualification.
Money is not something the universities like to talk about, partly because it is not seemly to be seen to be profiting from people who are so much poorer than ourselves but also because universities like to cloak such operations in secrecy. Bradford emphasises that it is not out to make a profit. Most of its investment is in terms of expertise, says Cleary. Academics are flown in and out.
"The charge we levy we keep at cover costs rather than profit because we think Pakistan, and particularly rural Pakistan, is an area in which we're interested in building capacity. In the long run this will bring social and economic benefits to the people. We are quite passionate about this. We're trying to help the less well off students who aren't able to go abroad because this is what Bradford University is all about."
Lancaster says that it will receive a registration fee for each student. It expects this to be £500, which is less than the £700 it gets for each student in its Indian partnership with GC Goenka Group. Tuition fees will be split between it and Comsats with the latter getting the lion's share. Both universities have to take care when their staff travel to Pakistan because of the security situation. Staff from Bradford are provided with a bodyguard by Imran Khan and stay at his home in Islamabad.
Professor Bob McKinlay, Lancaster's deputy vice-chancellor, says that when he visited Pakistan last October his hosts chose his hotel very carefully and he was accompanied at all times. Lancaster does not send staff out to teach in the Lahore campus where the dual degree students are based. All teaching is done by local staff. "We are worried about kidnappings, which is why we don't envisage anyone going to Pakistan and teaching for two to three months," he says.Reuse content