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Reviving hope in higher education

Pakistan had a number of reasons to celebrate in 2016. The Unesco director general formally signed a document on November 21, 2016, designating the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi as its Centre for Excellence and entrusting it with the responsibility of training scientists from other countries at the PhD level.

One of the centre’s important achievements was to host the country’s largest science conference, the 14th Eurasia conference, during December 2016, in which some 750 scientists participated. These included about 150 scientists from Europe, Canada, the US, Australia, Japan and many other Asian and African countries.

Another reason to celebrate was the appearance of an international report on Pakistan’s higher education sector by Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading company which publishes the Web of Science and international citation statistics related to research output. The report lauded the tremendous progress made by Pakistan’s higher education sector under the Higher Education Commission. This was primarily due to the quality assurance measures introduced at universities by the HEC since 2003. The report compared Pakistan to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) and, after a careful analysis of the statistics, concluded that the rate of improvement in scientific publications in Pakistan exceeded the progress made in any of the BRIC countries.

This dramatic improvement in the higher education sector was due to a number of steps taken during my tenure as chairperson of the HEC and beyond. These included the strengthening of the PhD level faculty by sending some 5,000 students abroad for training. The liberal research funding, the ranking of universities to create competition, the closure of substandard campuses, and toughening of the quality criteria for appointments and promotion of faculty also provided an impetus.

The steps also included the laying down of minimum criteria to open new university campuses, facilitating the process of filing international patents, establishing a huge digital library for the provision of text books and journals to all university students in the public sector. Other measures included linking all universities together through video-conferencing facilities, establishing an international lecturing programme at universities for the live delivery of lectures from advanced countries and modernising the curricula.

The emphasis placed by the HEC on quality rather than quantity was applauded by a number of neutral international observers in their reports. This put to rest the criticism from certain faculty members who found the going to be tough under the newly-introduced quality criteria.

The resulting increase in research publications – from only 800 per year in 2003 to over 11,000 per year in 2016 – the increase of PhD outputs – from only 125 per year in 2002 to about 1,500 per year in 2016 – and a similar increase in citations prompted India to follow Pakistan’s example.

In July 2006, a presentation was made to the then Indian PM about Pakistan’s progress under the HEC. This led the Indian cabinet to decide to close down its UGC and form an organisation that was similar to the HEC – the National Commission for Higher Education and Research. However, the decision remains to be approved by the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament.

In a recent, exciting development, the KP government has decided to establish a top-class engineering university in Haripur. The degrees in various engineering fields will be given by Austrian universities and the training will carried out be under Austrian supervision. A consortium of four Austrian universities has been formed. I am the chairperson of the steering committee to establish this university – which is named Pak Austrian University of Science and Technology – in Haripur. This will be a major milestone for Pakistan in the development of the engineering sector. It is hoped that other provinces will follow in the footsteps of the KP government and establish campuses of foreign universities in Pakistan.

A start has already been made in this direction by the Punjab government. I am involved in negotiations with French and Italian universities to set up their campuses in the Lahore Knowledge Park. My efforts to establish foreign engineering universities in collaboration with France, Italy, Austria, China, Sweden, Korea and other countries had almost led to the establishment of these campuses in Pakistan between 2007 and 2008. However, the programme was shattered by the previous PPP-led government, which had other priorities. I am pleased that I can once again play my part to resurrect that visionary programme and provide quality engineering education in Pakistan.

In spite of the progress that has been made so far, all is not rosy. From having five universities which are in the top 300-500 institutes across the world in 2008, we have witnessed a decline due to the destructive efforts of the previous government. As a result, we do not have a single university which ranks among the top 700 schools of the world now. Many universities remain weak because of their disregard of the HEC’s quality criteria. The state of schools and colleges across the country is simply appalling. With ill-qualified faculty and the lack of proper lab facilities for training, these schools adequately serve feudal interests that the country should remain either poorly educated or illiterate. An educated mass will pose a serious threat to the feudal landlords being elected into power. So our parliaments ensure that the least investment is made in education, ranking Pakistan among the bottom nine countries of the world in terms of investment in education as a percentage of GDP.

We need to realise that the only way forward for Pakistan is to establish a strong knowledge economy. The CPEC offers an opportunity for doing that, provided we have the correct vision and strategy. The CPEC needs to have a dozen high technology industrial and knowledge clusters in engineering goods, metallurgy, information & communication technologies, robotics pharmaceuticals/ biotech products, electronics, new materials, nanotechnology, defence product manufacture and high-value agriculture. These should be set up in collaboration with top Chinese universities and research centres and the Chinese private sector aimed at achieving exports from these industrial zones of at least $1,000 billion annually within 10 years.

A 15-year tax holiday should be given to boost manufacturing as was done by me in 2001 when I was Minister of Science & Technology (including IT and Telecom). The 15-year tax holiday given at that time led to the growth of the IT business from only $30 million per year in 2001 to about $3 billion per year at this stage.

Education cannot flourish in a country where corruption is at the core of government policies. The terrible situation in Sindh is highlighted by the fact that, according to recent reports, about Rs90 billion were allocated during last eight years for the development of Larkana alone, but not even Rs1 billion appears to have been spent. The money has been pocketed and deposited abroad by dirty politicians whose greed is limitless.

Unless we drastically reform our justice system and introduce severe punishments for corruption, we will continue to suffer and decline. The country has no option but to look to the few honest and committed parliamentarians and senators and to the Supreme Court as that is the only ray for hope for Pakistan.

The writer is chairman of the UN Committee on Science, Technology & Innovation for UNESCAP region and former federal minister for science & technology.

Rahman, Atta. Reviving hope in higher education. The News, January 11, 2017.

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