Monday May 29, 2023

Investing in the youth

August 14, 2019

There has been a significant expansion of university campuses and establishment of new universities during the last decade without taking adequate care of the single most important factor to ensure the quality of education – the availability of highly qualified faculty.

The result has been a sharp deterioration in the quality of education, reflected in the fact that while there were several Pakistani universities in the top 500 of the world according to Times Higher Education rankings in 2008, there are none today. Emphasis should be on quality and not just numbers. The mushrooming of universities without taking adequate care that trained faculty was available has led to the proliferation of mediocrity. The HEC should therefore set aside at least 50 percent of its annual development budget for a number of faculty development and procurement programmes.

Here we have much to learn from China. China embarked on its human resource development programme in a major way in 1978. Starting with sending about 800 students abroad that year, the number grew to thousands, then to tens of thousands and more recently to hundreds of thousands of the brightest students being sent to world’s top universities each year. It is truly astounding that in 2018, China sent about 600,000 students abroad and about 500,000 students returned to China that year after completing their doctoral level training. They represent the huge powerful workforce on the strength of which China is now dominating the world in terms of manufacture and export of high-technology products. Pakistan must do the same, albeit on a smaller scale.

We have about 2.6 million students studying in the higher education sector but there are only about 15,000 PhD level faculty to cater for these students. This means that the ratio of PhD level faculty to students is about 1:160 whereas it should be 1:20. So there is a need for an additional 100,000 PhD level faculty in our universities alone and another 50,000 PhD level faculty in other S&T institutions.

In order to tackle this pressing issue, the HEC should send at least 5,000-10,000 students abroad for PhD each year for the next 10 years and ensure placements in universities one year prior to their return. The HEC should also modify its 'Pak-US Knowledge Corridor' initiative that had failed badly because it was not foreseen that without providing adequate finances for fees in American universities, most students will not be able to benefit from it.

There is an urgent to modify the programme to include conditions agreed with USAID for the Fulbright programme when I was chairman HEC. These included: (a) fee to be paid by the HEC; at present it is a programme only for the rich as the fee requirement of about one crore rupees or more is payable by the candidates; and (b) training in top US universities only in fields of our national priority. Moreover, as agreed earlier with the Fulbright programme when I was chairman HEC, it should require the US to legally commit that no US visas will be granted to candidates for at least five years after completion of training in the US. This should be combined with sending about a thousand persons abroad for post-doctoral training each year.

During 2004-2007 an excellent programme initiated was to hire good quality foreign faculty. Many centers of excellence benefited from this initiative. These included the Abdus Salam Center for Mathematics in Government College University Lahore that emerged as a powerful centre in the field as a result of about 40 European mathematicians joining this programme. Unfortunately, like many other excellent HEC initiatives, this too collapsed after 2008, and the centre is now almost destroyed. The foreign faculty hiring programme which allowed good foreign faculty to be hired and placed in various universities for varying time periods should be urgently revived.

Another important initiative that the HEC needs to revive is that of $100,000 research grants for students returning to Pakistan after completing their PhD degrees from foreign universities. Under this programme, the projects could be submitted one year before their return date and were required to be in collaboration with their foreign supervisors or other tenured faculty members in the foreign universities where they completed PhD degrees. This resulted in a large number of international collaborations and helped boost research standards.

In order to promote university industry linkages, both the HEC and the Ministry of Science and Technology should revive the joint university–industry national self-reliance programme initiated during 2001 in the MoST and in 2004 in the HEC by this writer. Under this programme, entitled 'Science & Technology for Economic Development' (STED), at least 20 percent of project cost was contributed by the industry for 'industry need' driven projects.

An excellent decision taken by the prime minister’s 'Technology Driven Knowledge Economy Task Force' earlier this year was to transform five of our best universities into 'research universities' and five of the best research centres to 'international centres' by significant increases in their operational budgets and by providing liberal development grants. The HEC needs to urgently implement this decision as it is long delayed.

In order to develop a strong knowledge economy, the Ministry of Science & Technology (MoST) has to play a critically important role. Its development budget has been expanded about six fold this year because of the approval of a number of projects through funding from the PM's Knowledge Economy Task Force. These are important steps for the future development of a strong Pakistan.

The various organisations under the MoST need to be completely restructured with replacement of human resources, introduction of market-based salaries, setting of clear time-bound targets aimed at enhancing value added exports and import substitution. A Golden Handshake may need to be given to non-performing personnel so that space is created for hiring new talent. A reorganization of PCSIR on the pattern carried out by India under the supervision of Dr Mashelkar or in South Africa is what is needed urgently.

Pakistan is finally embarked on developing a strong knowledge economy. It is high time the HEC and other organisations rose to the occasion so that we can tap into our real wealth – our 100 million youth below the age of 20.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).