A United Nations report confirmed large-scale brain drain from Pakistan during the past decade. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) said in its report, released on July 17, 2022, that the country saw 16.5 million migrants moving overseas, the highest in the world. The report titled “World Population Prospects 2022” said Pakistan stands among 10 countries with the estimated net outflow of migrants exceeding one million over the period from 2010 through 2021.
In many other countries, with more than one million people leaving, the outflows were due to temporary labour movements, such as: India 3.5 million, Bangladesh, 2.9 million, Nepal 1.6 million, and Sri Lanka 1.0 million. But Pakistan’s case is quite different. A large majority of Pakistanis, leaving the country, are people in the age group of 22 to 32 years of age, the most productive age. They go abroad for higher, or specialised education every year, but then never to the country.
Though Pakistan has a number of institutions for higher education, many students prefer going abroad. Presently, there are a total of 184 universities both in the public and private sector. However, according to a Gallup-Pakistan survey, not only qualified professionals and university graduates want to leave the country, but even semi-skilled and unskilled workers want to migrate in search of better prospects. About 62 per cent of the adults interviewed for the survey expressed the desire to go abroad to work, while 38 per cent say that they would prefer to settle permanently outside the country. This shows that many Pakistanis are gradually losing faith in the country’s economic future.
As per UNESCO statistics, nearly 60,000 Pakistani students are currently studying abroad. There are 7,475 Pakistani students studying in the United States (2020-2021), as reported in the latest Open Doors Report. While this figure reflects a 5.8 per cent decline from the previous year, several other countries saw double-digit declines. Pakistan ranks 18th in terms of the number of international students in the United States during the 2020-2021 academic year, with the United States ranking as the second most preferred destination for Pakistani students. Other top-ranking destinations include: Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and China. One can safely conclude from these statistics that more than 50,000 young Pakistanis are leaving their country every year, on an average.
There are mainly two kinds of students who go abroad: one type is made up of our absolute brightest and most talented students; they generally go to elite schools and are fortunate enough to not only attain the best education the country or even the world has to offer, but also to excel at it. These students set their sights on the world’s best universities, such as Cambridge, Harvard, Yale or Oxford. While not everyone makes it, they still wind up going abroad to their “safe choices” of universities, which might not be great but are still outside of Pakistan. It is not just about education, but also about a lifetime experience. They either get scholarships, or their parents are able to arrange for their expenses on their own, while a few struggle to find other ways.
The second type is made up of students who are from middle or even lower middle class backgrounds. These students have not had a chance to obtain a quality education, nor have their financial circumstances allowed it. These students have a dream of going abroad, not primarily to study, but also to work, to sustain themselves and, perhaps, send some money back home.
These statistics show that the country is losing its best brains to the developed nations fast, and it is unfortunate that no serious steps are being taken to check the trend. Successive governments have failed to devise a policy in this regard. The government does not persuade its students to come back and serve their country. They are not offered proper jobs, according to their qualifications.
According to a British Council report, the driving force for all Pakistanis to study overseas is increased employability in a competitive marketplace. This whole map shows that in the coming years, people aged between 18 and 38, when people prefer to study and make their careers, the trend will continue.
Pakistan’s neighbouring country, India, is a clear success model in this regard as a BBC documentary showed that most Indian students now prefer to stay in their country for higher education than going abroad. This has been fuelled by an intense focus on quality, and a heavy government subsidy for local students, along with employment opportunities.
Nobody can say that going abroad to attain an education is wrong; our students should go abroad. But our most talented students not coming back to Pakistan is wrong, especially after having been given the best opportunities in the country. It is sad that those given the best opportunities are not using them to add value to the country and society. Secondly, there is no point in paying ten times more for the same quality education that is available in Pakistan. Going abroad is not a magical thing where everything will be better than in Pakistan. There is no point for our students to go to mediocre, or low-level, universities abroad when we can provide them better education here in Pakistan.
Experts believe that Pakistan’s future heavily depends on how talented and educated our youth will be. We must offer incentives to our students to come back, or to study here, by creating better institutions. We need to use our students to import knowledge, and not to export our intelligence.