Timely revival

August 17, 2022

After some four years of chaos in the higher education sector, with many key programmes systematically destroyed, sanity has finally prevailed. Prof Mukhtar Ahmed, a person with vast experience of...

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After some four years of chaos in the higher education sector, with many key programmes systematically destroyed, sanity has finally prevailed. Prof Mukhtar Ahmed, a person with vast experience of the higher education sector, has finally been appointed as chairperson of the HEC.

The new chairperson has a tough task ahead of him. Most universities are at the verge of financial and academic collapse and need to be nursed back to functionality. The single biggest challenge is funding. The operational budgets of the higher education sector have been frozen at about Rs65 billion for the last five years.

With above 15 per cent annual inflation, over 50 per cent depreciation of the Pakistani rupee against the dollar, and huge increases in electricity and gas prices, the resources provided by the government to public-sector universities can barely meet 20 per cent of the actual expenditure.

The second major challenge in our universities is an insufficient number of qualified faculty. Thousands of PhD-level scholarships are available to the HEC through various scholarship programmes, including a Rs13 billion project of the Knowledge Economy Task Force, but only a few could be awarded. Universities could not employ much-needed qualified faculty members due to severe financial constraints.

To address this problem, the HEC can incentivize the hiring of fresh PhD-level faculty in universities by bearing the financial costs involved and ranking universities annually with a major weightage being given to the student-to-PhD level faculty ratio.

The third important issue faced by the higher education sector is the lack of appropriate linkages with the industrial and agriculture sectors. This issue has been addressed in an excellent manner by the recently established Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering (Fachhochschule) in Haripur Hazara, where it has been made compulsory for students to spend 500 to 700 hours as full-time interns in industry, especially during summer vacations, over their four-year education period. The HEC could adopt this model and make it an integral part of the quality assurance process for all universities.

The fourth issue is to improve the quality of undergraduate education. At present the standards are poor with a weak understanding of basic principles involved. This could be done through making it mandatory for all undergraduate (and postgraduate) teaching to use a minimum of 70 per cent content from international massive open online courses (MOOCs), and also ensure that students are examined on the basis of these materials.

There are tens of thousands of excellent lectures available which should be fully utilized. We have created an integrated version of MOOCs which can be used for this purpose. It is available for free at www.lej4learning.com.pk, and it contains MIT Open Courseware, Khan Academy courses as well as thousands of other excellent lecture materials. The HEC can facilitate access to Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and other such materials.

The promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship is yet another important challenge for universities. The establishment of technology parks, with facilities to support the establishment of new startups, needs to be encouraged. If the government starts offering tax breaks to those industries that establish their research and development centres within such technology parks in public-sector universities, it could give a huge boost to promotion of private-sector research and development.

To promote international collaborations, our universities could introduce a system making it a requirement for every local PhD supervisor of a student to have an eminent foreign academic as a co-supervisor. This will benefit universities considerably as it would create strong networks of collaboration with good foreign academics in advanced countries. Co-supervision could take the form of fortnightly Zoom interactions to discuss projects and future directions. This would cost nothing and be of enormous benefit in improving standards.

Most universities lack sufficient facilities for high-quality research. However, scattered around in the country, such facilities are available in a few institutions. We introduced a novel programme back in 2004 to address this difficulty. It involved giving permission to researchers in universities to have their sample analysis carried out in any national institution (such as the PCSIR, the PAEC, NARC, etc) with the HEC covering analytical charges. The programme was a huge success and greatly contributed to the tremendous boost in high-quality international publications from university researchers. This programme was curtailed, and it is now in the process of being revived.

After 75 years of our existence, Pakistan is struggling with a weak economy, low literacy, poor education system with about 20 million out-of-school children, and mostly corrupt leadership. Our judicial system is among the weakest in the world. The World Judicial Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2021 ranked Pakistan at a shameful 130 position out of 139 countries.

To move forward with dignity in the world, we must build a strong knowledge economy. For this, we must be able to manufacture and export high-technology (and hence high value-added) goods such as electronics, computers, engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, minerals, IT products, etc.

This requires us to prepare our youth for the fifth industrial revolution through massive investments in education, science, technology, and innovation. Clearly a complete break with past strategies for socio-economic development is needed if we are to prosper in this new knowledge driven world.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: ibne_sinahotmail.com



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