The youngest population in the world: educating Pakistan’s next generation
The youngest population in the world: educating Pakistan’s next generation.

September 2015

The booming population of Pakistan poses huge challenges and opportunities.

As MPs from the UK return from visiting the country this summer, the latest research from the British Council highlights some of the implications – particularly for the education sector – of the extraordinary demographic shifts taking place and the important opportunities they present for collaboration between Pakistan and the UK.

Demographic dangers and dividends

Pakistan has the youngest population in the world

Pakistan has the youngest population in the world. 140 million out of a population of some 200 million are under the age of thirty. Indeed, under-thirties will form the majority of the electorate at the next election. On current trends the population will increase by a further 120 million to 310 million by 2050.  

This summer a group of UK MPs from across the political spectrum travelled to the country with the support of the British Council and spoke to many young people as well as political and community leaders. The visit offered a vivid demonstration of the challenges and opportunities facing Pakistan and its burgeoning next generation. In the best case scenario the demographic surge that generation represents could be harnessed as the foundation of significant economic progress. With the right skills the coming generations could represent a formidable resource, as Pakistan continues its path as an emerging nation, following the route already trod by the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies.  

However there is a real danger that the surge will instead lead to greater political instability, extremism and violence and begin to overwhelm the infrastructure of this large, strategically important and nuclear-armed nation. Pakistan already faces a challenging economic environment, problems with infrastructure, and significant levels of terrorist, political and criminal violence. There are frequent attacks on the media and civil society activists. In 2014 there were twelve major terrorist attacks across Pakistan and a large number of political assassinations in Karachi alone. Growing numbers of young people are at risk of unemployment, alienation and radicalisation. At least 5.6 million children are out of school and Pakistan is second only to Nigeria in the number of out of school children. A crucial factor in determining the effects of the demographic bulge will be education.


The huge economic growth experienced by neighbouring countries like India shows the potential benefits that could accrue to Pakistan with the rise of a large body of educated, urbanised and globally aware young people. The British Council’s recent ‘Next Generation’ research suggests that Pakistan should prioritise harnessing the potential represented by its young people.  Yet it also acknowledges some of the challenges involved. Young, media literate, middle class Pakistanis are often more anxious and more conservative than previous generations. Of those young people surveyed, only 23% thought democracy worked, compared to 46% supporting military government and a majority approving of Sharia law. Improved education in itself could help to address these issues, as well as offering huge potential economic benefits to young Pakistanis and to the country as a whole.

The first important area of focus must be schools. Pakistan is a country of some 2.5 million teachers but, with the demographic bulge, the visiting MPs were told (by the Higher Education Commission) that there is the need for an estimated 63% increase in teacher numbers and significant expansion and improvement in school education. As things stand, the literacy rate amongst Pakistani males is only 55% and amongst females just 42% and falling. These figures on their own, however, should not be taken as indicative of negative attitudes. As the MPs’ visits to schools and community centres revealed, there is a wide appetite for improved education for boys and girls across Pakistani society. Yet schools face severe and growing challenges of limited resources and ever-expanding numbers of potential pupils. The UK is well-placed to help in this regard and is already training hundreds of thousands of teachers in the country.

Another critical area is higher education. At independence in 1947 there were only two universities in Pakistan. Today there are over a hundred and seventy.  Yet despite greater government investment in recent years and a growing proportion – 33% (according to the Academy of Educational Planning and Management in Islamabad) – of girls amongst those going on to tertiary level, it is still the case that only 8% of Pakistanis have access to higher education.  Of these at least 28% will experience graduate unemployment (Economist Intelligence Unit (2014)). As well as general unemployment, nepotism remains a serious problem.  In 2011 the World Bank estimated that approximately half of businesses in Pakistan recruit employees through informal networks of family and friends, potentially undermining merit-based opportunity.  

Some employers also argue that education quality is low in universities as the curriculum is outdated and that there is a serious skills gap. They identity shortages in specialised skills in growth sectors and – even when graduates have these skills – employers suggest that they are not employable because of a lack of general computer literacy, English language and ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving and communication.

The UK, with its strengths in the sector and its existing links to Pakistani universities, is in an excellent position to help

In this context there is clearly scope for important reform and improvement in tertiary education as well as substantial expansion to meet the increasing demand. Again the UK, with its strengths in the sector and its existing links to Pakistani universities, is in an excellent position to help. Already 97% of vice chancellors and some 13,000 managers in Pakistani higher education institutions have been trained in UK leadership training programmes such as the British Council’s ‘Leadership for Excellence’.

Challenges and opportunities for the UK

The UK’s historical ties with Pakistan are strong but complicated. Many Pakistanis are ambivalent about the UK. Only 54% of those Pakistani’s asked approved of the UK, compared for example with 92% approving of Pakistan’s long-time ally China. However the UK remains the largest European investor in Pakistan. And the Pakistani-British diaspora living in the UK numbers 1.2 million (according to the 2011 UK Census), leading to enduring links between the two countries.  Millions of Pakistanis speak English as a second language and many show strong interest in the UK, its culture and arts. Furthermore, the latest British Council research suggests that some 85 million more Pakistani’s want English language training. This is partly because English remains the official language of state business in Pakistan as well as the language of international commerce.

Again, the UK is in an excellent position to benefit economically and diplomatically from helping to supply the large and growing demand for improved education and English language training – both directly through its educational providers and, perhaps more importantly, from the likely indirect benefits that a large, educated, English-speaking Pakistani population would present for the UK in the future. However, the UK also faces significant challenges in terms of security concerns arising from extremism in the region and risks losing influence and jeopardising its existing ties with Pakistan without further engagement with the country and its next generation.  

There is also scope for greater engagement through the UK Pakistani diaspora.  In the latest survey figures, a large majority (66%) of 18-26 year olds of Pakistani heritage in the UK identified as ‘British-Pakistani’ rather than simply Pakistani (17%) or British (18%). This sense of dual identity suggests scope for further engagement with Pakistan from amongst the diaspora community in the UK. A recent British Council Report concluded that the UK Pakistani diaspora could contribute more and more effectively to the development of Pakistan and found enthusiasm amongst British-Pakistanis for leadership programmes for Pakistani diaspora community leaders to focus on development in Pakistan (Diaspora Leadership Report, Common Purpose, British Council (2014)).

Many important steps have already been taken towards greater engagement from the UK as a whole. The MPs’ visit took in schools, universities, libraries, and cultural and sporting centres which were already involved with existing British Council programmes. These programmes include Active Citizens – a mandatory module being rolled out across all major universities in Pakistan that helps students of all disciplines to identify issues in their communities and create social action projects to tackle them; DOSTI (Urdu for ‘friendship’) – working with over 10,000 young people to develop soft skills through football and cricket for girls as well as boys; the Scottish Scholarship Scheme – partially-funding 15,000 young Pakistani women through higher education; and Take a Child to School - which has already encouraged 64,000 Pakistani girls to re-enter education. Talking to some of those who had benefited from engagement with these programmes clearly showed their potentially transformative impact on individuals, communities and general attitudes towards the UK. But, with ever larger numbers of young Pakistanis, there is huge scope for long-term expansion of such programmes and correspondingly greater impact across the country. 

This summer’s visit brought home the power of initiatives like these to help Pakistan to harness its demographic surge for good. If programmes like these are continued and expanded they may lead to important potential economic and security benefits for the UK. If nothing is done to help Pakistan meet the challenges of the surge, however, there is a serious risk to the future of rising generations of Pakistanis and to the prosperity and stability of a country of great strategic importance to the UK.

Author: Alasdair Donaldson, Editor

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