Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
I spent last week in Pakistan. I’ve been going there since 1998 and have made about fifty trips. Lahore is my favourite city in South Asia. But my how things have changed.
When I first got to Karachi 14 years ago, a Canadian dollar got you about 35 Pakistani rupees. Today it’s almost 90. Back then when I talked to students and families about going abroad for higher education, the United States was almost always the first choice, with the UK, a traditional Commonwealth destination for three generations, still a distant second. No more. Not only is America rarely mentioned by students, even when I ask about going to the US for a degree most Pakistanis flatly refuse to even consider it.
Sad to see higher education, the great stage upon which to build meaningful dialogue and exchange, be absolutely discounted in a place where it’s so badly needed to moderate antagonism and develop shared experiences and understanding. I wonder where there is going to be any rapprochement ? It looks to me to be quite far off at this point, and given the way sabres rattle even louder in US federal elections on talking tough on security, I expect the chasm of discomfort to be even more greatly pronounced between Pakistan and the United States for some time to come.
Apart from the obvious danger of growing tensions between two of the world’s most potent military forces (and both nuclear armed), it’s a real loss for American universities and colleges, who for years were educating some of the brightest minds in Asia. Now when I am talking to kids from the best high schools in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad – they and their parents are afraid of America. When for a decade and a half I had to convince them to consider an alternative to Michigan, Texas and California – now I wouldn’t even be able to talk them into going to the States !
Opportunity knocks for Canada. There are at least fifty excellent high schools in Pakistan. Another dozen universities have world-class graduates. Canadian public universities with their world-class programs and standards for excellent students, have a rich opening to recruit students.
Unfortunately, most Canadians will still see it as a minefield to visit rather than a field of minds to cultivate.
True, one has to be mindful when travelling to Pakistan, but it is probably the most misunderstood country in Asia, by those in the West. For those who can summon perspective and courage, it is an opportunity to not only recruit outstanding students, but to engage in sophisticated discussion on some of the most pressing issues of our time, and do so on the ground where it matters most.