An academic mission in Pakistan and Africa

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Prof Awais Raoof

Awais Raoof, chairman of governors at the University of Lahore, is also Uganda’s honorary consul. He tells John O’Leary how the two roles can be mutually beneficial.

As the leader of Pakistan’s largest private university, Awais Raoof might be thought to have enough on his plate. But his appointment as Uganda’s honorary consul in 2015 has opened up a new chapter for this charismatic figure that may lead his university to become more involved in other parts of Africa.

The University of Lahore (UoL), where Professor Raoof chairs the board of governors, now has 26,000 students and seven campuses, which stretch from Islamabad to Sargodha, Gujrat and Pakpattan, as well as Lahore itself. The focus is on professional and technical education, but there are 35 departments covering everything from medicine and dentistry to the arts and social sciences.

The private sector is playing an increasingly important part in satisfying the growing demand for higher education in Pakistan. Professor Raoof says: “The government sector cannot fulfil all the country’s needs. Most of the private sector is specialist, but the need now is for general purpose universities.”

Pakistan is a country of 200 million people, with 177 universities, half of them government-supported. But, despite rising enrolments, there are less than 2 million students in total.

The government plans to establish a university campus in each of the 149 districts and to send tens of thousands of students to the United States and other developed countries for PhDs under what is being called a “knowledge corridor”. The hope is that these universities and their faculties will ensure Pakistan’s transition to a knowledge economy.

The “Vision 2025” programme commits the government to doubling the proportion of its young people enrolled in higher education to 12% within a decade, and doubling the number of doctoral students to 15,000. At this stage, however, it is estimated that the universities are facing a shortage of 30,000 PhD-qualified faculty members.

Pakistan spends half of UNESCO’s minimum standard of 4% of gross domestic product on education, although it is committed to reaching this target by 2025. One bright spot of the existing provision is that, according to a Cambridge University study of participation in 35 countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan is one of only four such countries where more than 5% of the poorest half of young people go to university. Richer students are up to five times more likely to enrol, but those from poor families who make it through to the end of secondary education are likely to continue their studies.

“Fees at public universities are very low,” Professor Awais says. “But there is a general perception that the private sector offers better teaching and learning experience and better long-term prospects.”

At UoL, students come from all walks of life and a quarter are supported by the university. UoL was founded in 1999 by M A Raoof, now the patron of the university, under the auspices of the Ibadat Educational Trust, which mandated the university to offer equal opportunity to students from all strata of society without distinction in terms of cast, colour or creed.

In recent years, UoL has also looked overseas to broaden its enrolment. The student body includes 15 nationalities, the 450 international students representing the largest cohort in Pakistan’s private sector. Professor Raoof says: “We face a challenge because international students are not confident about coming to Pakistan, although there is no difficulty getting faculty members. Most of the students come from Afghanistan, but there is certainly interest in Turkey.”

“Security is naturally big in Pakistan,” Professor Raoof says. “In 2012, people decided to settle this argument and the extremists are being defeated. No army in the world can defeat terrorists if the general public is supporting them. We still have a very big team in Pakistan and another team in Africa.” There is increasing contact with African countries since Professor Raoof became honorary consul. “In 2010, I was contacted by the Islamic University in Uganda and the Islamic Development Bank,” he says. “There had been    a delay with a medical school and they wanted to reorganise the health infrastructure. There are not enough doctors, especially since they are leaving Uganda. It took us four years to launch, but the government declared it the best investment in Uganda. The President came to visit.”

Professor Raoof adds: “When we arrived, there were no diagnostic facilities, only operating theatres, a CT scanner and three MRI scanners. We brought in experts to get the high-tech machinery operating. We are now building the first medical centre; ultimately, there will be five covering the whole country so that the whole population is covered by diagnostic facilities.

“Every tertiary system should have hospitals and dental and medical schools. We are attracting back the diaspora. A postgraduate dental institute is being established in the predominantly Christian city of Masaka. “We are then going to get into other branches of education. We are taking Pakistani and Turkish delegations to Uganda as consultants to the ministries of education and health. Rwanda also wants something similar and we are working with a Nigerian state. Tanzania also has a relatively new government and is transforming.”

As head of the Ugandan Consulate in Lahore, Professor Raoof has promoted trade, investment and tourism between Pakistan and Uganda, organising trade visits and laying plans for collaboration in agriculture, health, education and technology transfer in particular. The consulate is also trying to promote Uganda’s flora and fauna to Pakistan’s expanding middle class. “The political stability we see in Uganda is unprecedented. Many more foreigners are yearning to invest in Kampala,” says Professor Raoof, who has involved the university and the Pakistan government in the establishment of the radiology and medical diagnostic imaging centre, as well as a medical training college at Masaka Referral Hospital. In addition to the construction of the five-storey centre, Lahore is also helping in the development of the Equator Institute of Science and Technology in Masaka.

“The University of Lahore is always looking at opening new avenues of education and training,” Professor Raoof says. “With the rapid expansion of financial institutions in Pakistan, there has been an urgent need for developing experts in commerce, finance and accountancy, for example. During the last decade, training of professional accountants has been strengthened in the country by several national and international institutions, but organised degree programmes in the discipline of finance and accountancy were not yet available.

“Lahore School of Accountancy and Finance has changed that traditional approach and continues to work towards fulfilling the global student need. I take great pride in acknowledging the recognition of programmes both at graduate and postgraduate levels by world-renowned accountancy bodies.”

Across all disciplines, Lahore had 20,000 applications last year and admitted 5,000 students. “We conduct surveys and they show that students come for reputation and future prospects,” Professor Raoof says. “Pakistani students are becoming more aware every day. There has to be now a general effort towards standardization of qualifications. As competition grows, institutions will be pushed towards standardisation.”

Lahore finished in the top 30 in the latest (2015) ranking of Pakistani Higher Education Institutions by the Higher Education Commission. The rankings are intended to give an indication of the universities’ international competitiveness in education, research and innovation. They take account of quality assurance reports, teaching quality, finance and facilities, research and social integration and community development. Teaching quality is judged by staffing levels and qualification, selectivity, training and awards. UoL also featured in the 2016–17 QS World University Rankings, at 701+. There are formal links with universities in a dozen countries, including Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.

The university is now working with three others in Uganda and may do the same in Tanzania. But there is more development to come in Lahore itself. A medical park and IT innovation centre are planned, as well as three technology parks. New teaching facilities for computer science are open and the same is on the way for engineering.

Professor Raoof says: “I firmly believe that the role of universities in the 21st century in Pakistan must be to respond to phenomenal changes unleashed by rapid advancement in science and technology for the economic development of the country, as well as the challenge posed by globalisation.”

Awais Raoof was born and brought up in Lahore before going to study at the London Business School. “I was probably going to stay in London,” he says. “But there were family interests in Lahore and I could give something back to my country. I didn’t need to look for resources – I had them.” He returned to teach accounting at the University of Lahore and subsequently became chairman of the Board of Governors. He is also chief executive of Creative Village Studio, a media production facility in Lahore. He was appointed Uganda’s honorary consul to Pakistan, based in Lahore, in 2015. The city is significant in Uganda-Pakistani relations because member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting there resolved to start Uganda’s first private sector university, the Islamic University in Uganda.