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Opinion

July 3, 2016

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Education is the key

Education is the key

The pace of a country’s development is inextricably linked to its educational excellence. Unlike other development and nation-building initiatives, education cannot be valued purely in a typical cost matrix. It must instead be viewed as a critical long-term investment in creating an enabling environment for unleashing and utilising the limitless potential of a human mind. Education gives us the potential to optimise our abilities and it is this power of an alleviated individual that ultimately contributes to the collective good and the creation of a greater people.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has found itself wanting in this commitment. At the national level, we did not fare well in the recently launched QS Ranking 2016. No Pakistani university could make it to the list of top 500 universities nor did any university find a place among the top 100 in Asia. The rankings proved to be a rude reminder that Pakistan’s education system ranks amongst the world’s weakest.

The QS Ranking 2016 should serve as an alarming wake-up call and warrants a thorough introspection to ascertain and address the factors that produced falling educational standards despite allocation of resources.

We exist in a world of knowledge-driven progress; ‘knowledge economies’ and ‘knowledge societies’ are the buzzwords of development. Gone are the days when natural resources and their exploitation guaranteed a nation’s survival and uninterrupted progress. Today, it is the quality of a nation’s human resource, a direct reflection of its educational excellence, that heralds its future amongst the comity of nations and the well-being of the people.

The universities all over the world are focused on inculcating entrepreneurial capabilities in students, fostering research and innovation, and creating rational minds for problem resolution. These universities are leading from the front in creating jobs and phenomenal wealth through crosscutting knowledge.

According to Forbes, the alumni of Stanford University created 39,900 companies that produced 5.4 million jobs between 1930 and 2010. These companies generate revenues of $2.7 trillion annually. A similar study measured the economic impact of MIT. The MIT alumni set up 25,800 companies that generated 3.3 million jobs over time and $2 trillion in annual revenue. If we were to treat Stanford and MIT as a single country, then this mythical country would have been the world’s fourth richest country with a GDP higher than that of Germany. Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, Google, HP, and Facebook are the products of top-notch research and innovation enabling environments that took a couple of students to start a billion dollar company.

Most importantly, quality education is a great equaliser between the haves and have-nots as it provides opportunities to the underprivileged sections of society for upward socio-economic mobility. In the milieu we live in, plagued as it is by radicalism and extremism, seats of higher learning can be a bulwark against such evil forces. They can be the harbinger of hope and generator of fresh ideas besides being custodian of our pluralistic, moderate and inclusive values.

In our efforts to defeat hatred and militancy, universities can be the first intellectual line of defence. Our education system must create a mindset, that promotes harmony and fosters inter-faith dialogue, and safeguards the rights of the minorities.

But our problems are not purely societal or intellectual in nature. Our higher education system is also marked by absence of linkages with the industry. Educational institutions are apparently operating in a vacuum, unaware of the demands of market and industry. These shortcomings constitute a challenge, but at the same time jolt us into addressing all problems in a well-considered and rational approach.

Promotion of education in general and higher education in particular remains close to my heart. In Punjab, I have made an unprecedented resource commitment of Rs312.80 billion in the 2016-17 budget towards education. This is a whopping 47 percent increase over the last fiscal budget.

During my tenure as chief minister, nine universities have been set up and five more are in the works. My government has launched the ‘Shahbaz Sharif Merit Scholarship Award’, whereby the Punjab government will pick up the entire tab for students who secure admission in the top 50 universities of the world. Besides this, the government will also sponsor the education of 1000 students for a Masters degree in national universities. The Punjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF) achieved the benchmark of giving 100,000 scholarships to deserving students, without any distinction on the basis of gender, race, religion or ethnicity. This year, I have doubled the scholarships to two hundred thousand. Under this programme, the students are sent to top local and foreign universities for higher education. With an increase of Rs4 billion announced in the recent budget, the seed money of PEEF is now a record Rs20 billion.

The Punjab government is establishing the Lahore Knowledge Park as the driving force to turn Pakistan, Punjab in particular, into South Asia’s future nodal point for a global knowledge economy. The objective of the Lahore Knowledge Park is to develop and create linkages and synergy between the academia and the corporate world in areas that feed into the global knowledge industry. Tens of billions of rupees are being spent on this mega project.

To date we have also distributed 310,000 laptops amongst students to eliminate the digital divide and promote IT education. Punjab is the first province to establish the country’s first IT university. Given the importance of the CPEC and relations with China, the Punjab government will be sending hundreds of students, selected through open merit, for learning Chinese language. All expenditures in this regard will be borne by the government.

To top it all, the Punjab government has set up the Provincial Higher Education Commission (PHEC) to promote research, improve capacity of educational institutions, and introduce faculty development programmes. The PHEC is playing a major role in realising the objectives of Punjab Growth Strategy 2018 by creating job-ready and employable workforce through increased focus on structural and technical skills. These programmes have already begun to show positive results.

Our nation’s long-term progress and survival depends on the quality of education provided by our universities. If we are to survive and thrive as a successful nation then the education of our people must be a lifelong uninterrupted process where excellence is the norm. In his typical wisdom our own Quaid-e-Azam told us that “Education is a matter of life and death for our nation”. No more needs to be said after this.

The writer is the chief minister of Punjab. Facebook: facebook.com/shehbazsharif

Twitter: @CMShehbaz

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