Pakistani students turning to China for opportunities

Updated: 2013-03-09 07:59

(China Daily/Agencies)

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When Misbah Rashid taught Mandarin 30 years ago, few signed up. Today her department has more than 200 Pakistani students, increasingly attracted by the prospect of an affordable education and a job.

For decades, a foreign education was the preserve of the richest who could afford the stratospheric expense of sending their progeny to Oxford or Harvard to mingle with an international Westernized elite.

But Rashid's pupils are mostly middle class. Ambitious and academic, they lack the means to afford a US or British education and so they sign up for Mandarin at the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad.

Some of them hope to get a job with a Chinese company in Pakistan. Others will go on to further studies in China, which offers around 500 scholarships a year and cheaper fees.

A course in China costs a few thousand dollars a year, compared with the tens of thousands of dollars that US and UK universities charge. Also, many Pakistanis say China makes them feel welcome.

"Nowadays as Pakistanis, you may not be as welcome in all other countries as we were a few years ago," said 18-year-old Ali Rafi, who applied to study economics at a Chinese university after visiting the country last summer.

"But when we went to China, there was one major difference in that we felt at home, the people relations were really, really good. We were always welcomed, honored and everyone was really pleased when they learned we were Pakistani."

He studies at City School, one of the private schools in Islamabad that has started to offer Chinese lessons to children as young as 12, who sing in Mandarin under the watchful eye of their teacher, Zhang Haiwei.

If everything goes well, the classes will be rolled out across the school's other 200 branches in Pakistan. And other private schools are doing the same.

Pakistanis complain about the difficulty of getting visas and of the suspicion their nationality can arouse among those who associate Pakistan with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban, particularly in the UK and the US.

The UK government said that overall, 20 percent fewer student visas were issued in 2012, compared with the previous year.

The US mission in Pakistan said it supports the world's largest US government-funded exchange program, sending over 1,000 Pakistanis on fully funded educational programs to the US every year.

The independent Institute of International Education said that 5,045 students from Pakistan studied in the US in 2010-11, but that the number has declined steadily since 2001-02, the academic year of the 9/11 attacks.

There is also considerable resentment of US policy, including the use of armed drones to carry out attacks in Pakistan on militants.

Growing presence

The job market is another consideration.

Pakistan's main trading partner is still the European Union, but trade with China reached $12 billion last year, up 18 percent year-on-year.

Last month, a Chinese company agreed to manage Pakistan's port of Gwadar, which through an expanded Karakoram Highway could connect China to the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world's traded oil.

Mushtak Ahmed, 19, has enrolled under Rashid precisely because of increased Chinese investment.

"Lots of Chinese people ... just speak Mandarin and we cannot understand it ... so there is a need for translators," he said.

According to Pakistan's embassy in Beijing, around 8,000 Pakistani students are already studying in China and thousands more are preparing to join them.

In Pakistan, there are more than 6,000 Chinese students. However, former ambassador to Beijing and Washington Riaz Khokar said: "We have maybe about 50 teachers (from China). We don't have enough teachers."

He added that China offers a technical education that will benefit the Pakistani economy.

The Chinese economic presence in Pakistan is growing, so the country should improve the training of its workforce, he said.