“Pakistan Se Zinda Bhag”: Despondency and Brain Drain Amongst Pakistani Students


It’s a February evening. Rabbiya is brewing tea after a long day of Zoom meetings and classes, when she receives a phone call. This is pre-scheduled in response to her Facebook post offering help to Pakistanis seeking advice for American graduate school. “So, what is your motivation for applying to grad school?”, she asks. The caller, Maria, says, “Actually, I have been married to a violent man. My in-laws and family tell me to simply tolerate it. And I can’t go back home, because my family won’t accept me. I have been thinking maybe this could be an option out.”

As a PhD candidate in the US, who is originally from an upper-middle class Pakistani house, Rabbiya understands the importance her advice can have for aspirants back home. A student of materials engineering, she was also forced to move because her home country didn’t have many jobs in her field. Although her first priority was to get a doctoral degree, her alternative plan was to start freelancing on Upwork – that work, however, wasn’t relevant to her credentials. What she didn’t realize earlier was how much such an opportunity could mean to people who are stuck in abusive situations. “I receive such calls and messages frequently, from women and religious minorities who are looking for a way to escape”, she tells me. “With the domestic violence bill being delayed and cases of femicide becoming so frequent, women’s desperation to get out is rising and it’s heart breaking”, she adds.

With 40,000 students going abroad for higher education in 2013, Pakistan is one of the largest source countries for academic migrants.
The country’s unstable political and security situation alongside a notorious education budget of 2 percent paints a landscape of despondency for its youth, who cannot access premier research opportunities or a promising work market at home. Access becomes more difficult when you are a segregated minority or a woman affected by the patriarchal culture of ‘chaddar and char divari’ (veils and walls).

Moth Eaten Academic and Labour Structures

When it comes to education abroad, Pakistani youth usually tread one of the two paths, depending on their class and educational background. The first path is for the rich: upper class families comfortably pay for the education of their children – the second, which is opted for by most Pakistani middle class students, is characterized by a search for scholarships and fully funded programs in graduate school.

Dr. Nida Kirmani sheds light on the elitist foundations of Pakistan’s education ‘industry’: “Unfortunately, the quality of higher education in Pakistan has steadily declined over the past four decades at least, particularly public universities. The government has not invested in higher education and has encouraged the privatisation of education in general. This has led to universities such as LUMS and Habib University capturing the market for upper middle class students, but these offer only limited opportunities beyond a bachelor’s degree. In general, only elites can afford to go abroad for their undergraduate degrees, but for middle and upper middle class students, going abroad for postgraduate studies is the dream for many because of limited options in Pakistan”.

A study at PIDE found that Pakistani universities do not contribute well-cited research. In fact, most Pakistani universities lack the academic culture and mentorship generally required to produce graduates who can conduct quality research and are committed to social development. While the former is the direct result of treating education like a commodity, the latter springs from an insufficiency of PhDs, student-teacher contact and departments that are cognizant of market needs and available academic opportunities.

Furthermore, when Pakistani graduates enter the labour market, they experience a double bind.

While almost 8 percent of youth from 18 to 24 years of age are unemployed, 11 percent are working in sectors completely irrelevant and 13.8 percent in sectors that are slightly irrelevant to their degrees.

This mismatch in employment owes largely to an unstable economy that cannot keep pace with population growth and outdated curricula that do not correspond to evolving trends in respective disciplines. A study at the Punjab University found that 78 percent of employers find graduates from Pakistani universities to be diffident, negative, socially inept and under-qualified for the jobs they apply for, regardless of designation, gender, age or qualification.

Given the failure of the academy to nurture productive citizens and the economy to provide students with fulfilling careers, it is natural that youth look to foreign countries for realizing their dreams. While migrants eventually contribute to Pakistan’s economy through remittances, it is noteworthy that people from lower or middle classes send a huge share, where money is spent on consumer goods, rather than investment. Accordingly, brain drain deprives the country of both intellectual and monetary capital.

Notes from the Margins

Mahnoor, an economics major from Lahore, aspires to go abroad for her masters. She cites an absence of jobs and an intensifying hopelessness regarding women’s safety in Pakistan as her primary motivators. She finds herself more subdued than usual nowadays. “I used to actively share posts on women’s rights, and I would start arguments with my parents on why it’s okay for women to divorce and so on. Now I find myself losing hope. I forget to carry pepper sprays, and no one should have to carry them to feel safe, but I think of how families and society enable murders, and I wonder what’s the use”.

Mahnoor’s anxiety regarding the safety of her person and dreams has risen, since Noor Mukaddam’s murder and the motorway rape case. News related to crimes against women combined with the government’s delay of the Domestic Violence Bill underlie this unease. “Most of us can’t leave”, she declares. “ We’re held back by families, ‘honour’ and financial restraints. As a woman from the middle class, my only means of escape is a degree abroad, and I don’t know if I will have to return”. She also shares that she had applied to programs abroad earlier and received acceptance at the University of Colorado, but couldn’t go because of the high fees.

Although data on Pakistani women’s migration is largely missing, and their participation in migrant labour force negligible, one can glean that they find foreign educational opportunities to hold significant weight for the realization of their goals. With women making up for half of Pakistan’s Fulbright scholars every year and half of Erasmus scholars this year, it is evident that Pakistani women are increasingly opting for foreign higher education, even though their numbers in overall migration trends pale to their male counterparts. An important obstacle holding women back is the coincidence of expected timelines for marriage and entrance into higher education for many. Since 60 percent are married off by the age of 24 and expected to bear children within the first few years of marriage, their mobility and aspirations are chained to their husband and his family.

The security situation worsens for religious minorities, which comprised 20 percent of Pakistan’s population at the time of Partition, but now constitute less than 4 percent. The recent demolishing of the Ganesh temple in Sindh, which coincided with a blasphemy case against an 8 year old, signifies the hostility faced by minorities at the hands of Muslim mobs. The instance emptied hundreds of Hindu houses, which already contribute to 5000 migrants from the country every year.

‘Pakistan se zinda bhag’ (Leave Pakistan till you can), a catchphrase that parodies ‘Pakistan zindabad’ (Long live Pakistan)’, therefore, captures the prevailing sentiment amongst historically oppressed factions. While the current government inaccurately celebrates the economic advantages of remittances, it needs to focus on developing human capital to prevent further devolution. Reversing Pakistan’s legacy as a wound to its citizens requires intensive academic reform and a commitment to human rights – an increasingly important task given the country’s young populace and its rising vulnerability to extremist ideologue.


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    Syed Kamal

    Dear Ms. Ishfaq, You have rightly identified the atrocious conditions of existence for women and minorities in Pakistan. I just want to add more to the list. For example there used to be a small Chinese minority that used to run restaurants (they are all but gone, the Ahmadi’s were ill treated enough that many western countries have accepted them for asylum. You already pointed to women. Another large minority that has been under serious threat has been the Urdu-speaking (and people labeled Biharis) to a greater extent in Sindh. Through all kinds of overt and covert, legal and illegal measures they have been marginalized and alienated. This process has been on going on since 1971. Most Urdu speaking detest the party that is assumed to be their representatives (MQM). A party as corrupt and disinterested in our welfare as the rest of political mobs that pass for “Parties”.
    Rest of Pakistan’s citizenry, human rights commission, the judiciary and the federal government have all been totally oblivious to our plight. Our community has learned its lesson, at least I hope to let our past be the guide to our future. Let this country be damned, there is no hope for it on any front. Leave Pakistan as soon as you can, hopefully via legal means and never return, except for short visits. I know this easier said than done, when I with my Canadian nationality am living in Pakistan.

    May 30, 2022

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