Private Universities in Pakistan

Originally published in the January/February 2005 issue of WENR

Pakistan currently suffers from large fiscal and trade deficits, the absence of a strong middle class and weak foreign investment. Economic growth is sluggish with 48 million Pakistanis (33 percent of the population) living below the poverty line. A mere 2.6 per cent of the population is enrolled in higher education, and adult literacy hovers around 43 percent. Yet despite these bleak statistics, the country has paradoxically witnessed a tremendous surge over the past decade or so in the number of colleges and universities. The vast majority of the new schools are private.

For many years now the public sector has been unable to keep up with the demand for higher education. Student enrollments grow sharply with each year, as the benefits of earning a college degree become more evident, especially in the business and high tech sectors. By the year 2010, it is estimated that Pakistan will need to accommodate 1.3 million students at the tertiary level.

Because of the great need to fill the education gap, the government has made it relatively easy for the private sector to establish colleges and universities. As a result, a record 49 new universities and other degree awarding institutes (most of them private) have been established since 1999.

The crisis in education extends to the primary and secondary levels as well. Student/teacher ratios in primary schools are extremely poor, sometimes averaging 55 to 1. Moreover, only 57 percent of boys and 44 percent of girls are enrolled at the primary school level. The dropout rate during the first five years of primary school is around 70 percent.

At the secondary level, 46 percent of boys are enrolled in school and only 32 percent for girls. Illiteracy is extremely high, particularly among girls, where it reaches 72 percent. Among males, illiteracy is 43 percent. The overall deterioration of the state-run school system in Pakistan has given rise to alternative forms of education. Since the early 90s private English medium schools and madrasahs have proliferated throughout the country.

Historical Background

When Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a result of the partition with India, the country had only one institution of higher education, the University of the Punjab. Over the next 20 years, many private and public schools and higher education institutions were established to help fuel the country’s socio-economic development.

In the early 1970s, all of Pakistan’s educational institutions were nationalized under the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was committed to the idea of Islamic Socialism.

For the next decade, Pakistan’s entire system of education was state-run. However, the growing demand for higher education fast outpaced the establishment of new public universities. During that period, the system could accommodate only 25 percent of the high school graduates who applied to higher education institutions. The overcrowding prompted many wealthy Pakistanis to seek university degrees abroad in the United States, Great Britain and Australia, while others sought out private tutors at home or entered the job market without a degree.

In 1979 a government commission reviewed the consequences of nationalization and concluded that in view of the poor participation rates at all levels of education, the public sector could no longer be the country’s sole provider of education. By the mid-1980s, private educational institutions were allowed to operate on the condition that they comply with government-recognized standards.

Until 1991, there were only two recognized private universities in Pakistan: Aga Khan University established in 1983; and Lahore University of Management Sciences [2] established in 1985. By 1997, however, there were 10 private universities and in 2001-2002, this number had doubled to 20. In 2003-2004 Pakistan had a total of 53 private degree granting institutions.

The rapid expansion of private higher education is even more remarkable if we look at the number of institutions established on a year-by-year basis. In 1997, for instance, three private institutions were established; in 2001 eleven new private institutions were opened; and in 2002 a total of 29 private sector institutions sprung up.

How Institutions Are Chartered

Establishing a chartered institution of higher education in Pakistan is a multi-step process. Institutions must meet legal and academic requirements with respect to campus facilities, faculty and staff, and financial resources. The first step in establishing an institution is to submit a feasibility study to the government of the province where the institution will be located. For institutions in the federal territory, the study is submitted directly to the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

Each province has its own criteria and guidelines for granting university charters. However, these guidelines are largely based on the guidelines of the HEC. Although it is not mandated, provincial governments seek expert advice and input from the HEC when they receive applications for a charter from a private institution.

If the feasibility study is accepted, it is followed by a physical inspection of the institution’s facilities and infrastructure. If the institution passes the inspection, the HEC recommends the granting of a charter, either to the provincial government or to the central government for institutions located within that jurisdiction. Charters are usually granted by acts of provincial parliaments or the federal parliament. The President of Pakistan or provincial governors also have the authority to grant charters.

Private vs. Public Higher Education

While the quality of Pakistan’s private universities varies widely, they all share some common traits. Most of them have adopted the American model of higher education, which features a four-year bachelor’s degree and system of credits.

Private sector schools are also costly. The most expensive of the private universities is the IQRA University/Asian Management Institute [3], which charges an annual tuition of nearly US$2,200. However, most private sector universities are priced between US$1,000 and $1,500. In a country where the average per capita income is estimated to be US$277 per year, this puts private institutions beyond the reach of most Pakistanis.

Supporters of private higher education believe that non-government institutions can deliver higher quality education and do it far more efficiently than the public sector. They point to the fact that private schools rarely suffer the closures and class suspensions their public counterparts do, and that students enrolled at these schools are more apt to complete their degree programs on time. They also believe that private universities will introduce international standards of competence and accountability.

On the other hand, detractors fear that the proliferation of private schools will lead to the commercialization of higher education and a two-tiered system based on wealth. Many feel that private institutions of higher education merely serve as “cram schools” to prepare students for board exams, rarely providing quality education and opportunities for intellectual growth.

Quality Assurance

Several new universities have recently been chartered in Pakistan and many more are currently under review. Some of the most prestigious private universities include the Aga Khan University, Hamdard University in Karachi [4], and the Lahore University of Management Sciences [2]. These schools have met all the necessary quality assurance standards prescribed by the government through the HEC.

However, other private institutions are currently operating without official approval. Many of these advertise themselves as branches of American universities, or as authorized to confer degrees in the name of American institutions they claim to be affiliated with. Most of these claims are unreliable at best.

In December 2004, the government of Pakistan decided that private tertiary institutions that do not meet HEC standards will have their charters withdrawn in February 2007. In the meantime, the HEC has grouped private institutions into four categories as follows:

Category (A) – Institutions That Meet The Major Requirements
Category (B) – Institutions With Minor Shortfalls, Expected to Meet the Cabinet Criteria by 2007
Category (C) – Institutions That Do Not Meet the Requirements
Category (D) – Institutions That Are Seriously Deficient

Pakistan’s System of Education

Education in Pakistan is largely a provincial matter. Although the Ministry of Education (MOE) presides over Pakistan’s entire system of education, each province has its own department of education. The central government continues to be the overall policy-making, coordinating, and advisory authority. Educational institutions located in the federal capital territory are administered directly by the MOE.

07decmap [5]Schools normally close for ten weeks from the beginning of June until mid-late August. Winter holidays usually run from mid December to early January.

Primary and secondary education is provided by public and private schools, in addition to Islamic madrasahs.

Universities are administered by the provincial governments, but are funded by the central government through the Higher Education Commission (HEC). The University Grants Commission of Pakistan has been defunct now since 2002 when it was superseded by the HEC.

The HEC encompasses all degree granting universities and institutions (public and private) and is responsible for coordinating reviews and evaluations of all academic programs. In addition, the HEC oversees the planning, development and chartering of both public and private institutions of higher education.

Primary Education

Primary education lasts five years (Grades I-V) beginning at age five and ending at age 10. The language of instruction is either Urdu or the regional language. The curriculum includes: reading, writing, arithmetic, general science, social studies, religious studies, and physical education.

Vital Statistics

Secondary Education

Secondary Education’s currently divided into three stages: a three-year stage offered in middle schools; a two-year stage offered in secondary schools; and a further two-year stage in higher secondary schools and intermediate and degree colleges.


The madrasah system operates in parallel with the formal education system and, provides Islamic education based mainly on the Holy Quran and the Hadith (teachings of the prophet Muhammad). Enrollment is free of charge and most madrasahs provide free room and board as well.

According to a report published in Dec. 2004 by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), the number of madrasahs in Pakistan increased more than 10 fold between 1947 and 1988. Currently there are more than 10,000 madrasahs teaching up to two million school children.

Madrasah primary schools, called maktabs, are usually attached to mosques, and provide basic Islamic education focusing on the reading and memorization of the Quran. Secondary school madrasahs provide advanced instruction in Islamic education. In an attempt to better integrate the Islamic and formal education systems, contemporary subjects such as English, mathematics, general science and computer science have recently been introduced into the madrasah curriculum

The madrasahs are largely autonomous and have their own administrative system although they do receive grants from the central government. There are several official bodies that regulate the madrasahs and award certificates. These include the Jamea-tus Safiya, the Wafaq-ul-Madaris, and the Tanzeem-ul-Madaris.

Urdu and Arabic are the languages of instruction in the madrasahs.

Madrasahs have their own examination system, and award certificates called sanads. Following are the different levels and certificates of the madrasah system and how they correspond to the formal system:

Holders of the Sanaviya Khassa are qualified to pursue higher education within the madrasah system, or apply to colleges and universities within the formal sector.

Vocational/Technical Secondary Education

Vocational schools offer one-year certificate and two-year diploma programs in various trades at the secondary level (Grades IX and X) leading to the Secondary School Certificate in technical subjects.

Higher Education

As of 2004-2005 Pakistan has 107 public and private degree granting institutions. In addition, there are many degree-granting institutes (both private and public) specializing in certain disciplines like business and information technology.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC), prescribes the guidelines under which all institutions of higher education may open and operate. It monitors all degree-granting higher education programs for quality assessment and is responsible for chartering both public and private institutions of higher education.

For a listing of universities and institutes recognized by HEC go here.

Admission requirement: The HigherSecondary School Certificate is the general admission requirement for university study.

Language of instruction: English and Urdu

University Higher Education

Stage I:  A Bachelor’s Pass Degree is usually awarded after a two-year program. The Honor’s Bachelor’s Degree is awarded after three years of fulltime study in arts and humanities, sciences and commerce. Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, pharmacy and computer science take four years of study, and medicine requires five.

Stage II:  The Master’s degree requires two years of study after the Pass degree and one year after the honor’s bachelor’s degree.

Stage III:  A doctoral degree normally requires a minimum of three years of study beyond the master’s degree. However, the Doctor of Literature (Dlitt), Doctor of Science ((DSc) and Doctor of Law (LLD) are awarded after five-to-seven years of study.

Non-University Higher Education

Non-university higher education is provided by polytechnics, technical and commercial institutes and colleges. These institutions offer programs that generally last two-to-three years and lead to certificates and diplomas in commercial and technical fields. Certificates and diplomas are awarded by boards of technical education in the various provinces.

Teacher Education

Primary School Teachers:  Teachers are trained at the post secondary level in primary-school training schools. The Allama Iqbal Open University [6] in Islamabad offers a one-year program leading to the Primary Teaching Certificate.

Secondary School Teachers:  Teachers are trained in university departments of education or in affiliated colleges. They are awarded a certificate of teaching one year after the secondary school examination.

Teacher Education at Universities:  The Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) requires one year of study beyond the two-year bachelor’s (Pass) degree. Holders of the B.Ed. are qualified to teach at the higher secondary school level.

Grading Scales

Pakistani Grading Scale
Grade Description WES Equivalency
A Excellent A
B Good B
C Satisfactory C+
D Pass C
F Fail F


Pakistani Grading Scale
Grade Percentile WES Equivalency
Distinction 85 – 100 A
High Pass 70 – 84 B
Pass 60 – 69 C+
Marginal Pass 50 – 59 C
Fail 0 – 49 F