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Tighter rein on foreign students


General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, this week added a ban on foreign students to the country's wide-ranging plans to reform its religious schools (madrassas).

The toughening measures followed British newspaper reports which suggested that at least one of London's July 7 bombers visited a seminary in Lahore.

The government and the madrassa in question have both denied that the trip took place.

Education minister Javed Ashraf Qazi told The TES that foreign students were being singled out because the international community associated them with terrorism, and not because of a genuine threat.

"These foreign students bring an unnecessary pointing of the finger at us, so we don't want them," said Mr Qazi.

"(The bombers) were British citizens born and bred, brought up in Britain... but they say they studied here, so we automatically get the blame."

In a rare briefing to the foreign press, General Musharraf announced last Friday that no more madrassa study visas would be issued, and that any foreign students presently in the country would be asked to leave.

The announcement comes as the Pakistani government is preparing legislation that will help to enforce the current programme of madrassa reforms.

The country's education ministry has admitted that the reforms have so far failed because of the reliance on voluntary submission of information, such as details about official registration, overseas funding and the names of foreign staff and students.

So far, the majority of the traditionally independent madrassas have refused to provide such details, but under the new legislation local authorities, including the police, will have more power to enforce the reforms.

The plan also includes a budget to support the introduction of mainstream curriculum subjects such as maths and information technology in addition to the study of the Koran.

Typically, when seminary students graduate, they are usually only qualified to call the faithful to prayer or to work as madrassa teachers themselves.

"These students have learned nothing apart from religion," Mr Qazi said.

While the wide-ranging shake-up of the madrassa system may be motivated in part by international pressure, the minister insists that the measures will also benefit the students. "I would like to see the children becoming useful citizens, able to get jobs," he said.

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