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October 14, 2020

Visionary projects

Opinion

October 14, 2020

The Pak-Austrian Fachhochschule in Haripur Hazara is probably the first university in the world where eight foreign universities, three from Austria and five from China, will be involved in offering their courses, controlling the examinations and eventually offering their degrees.

It is also probably the first university in the world which will comprise two halves. One half is the ‘Fachhochschule’ part which will be involved in high quality technical education at the BS and MS levels and will work closely with the built-in technology park for commercialisation of products. The other half will be for engineering research that will be supervised by five Chinese and one Austrian university; that will focus on PhD and postdoctoral training in cutting edge emerging fields of commercial importance such as artificial intelligence and other important areas.

I need to acknowledge the support given by the Ministry of IT and Telecom under the leadership of its dynamic Secretary Shoab Siddiqui in the establishment of the postgraduate research center on artificial intelligence in this university in close collaboration of the Johannes Keppler University in Linz, Austria.

It is notable that there was a major change in the landscape of our universities under the Higher Education Commission soon after it was established in October 2002. At that time, not a single university could achieve respectable international ranking although 55 years had elapsed since the birth of Pakistan. When appointed as chairman HEC in 2002, I put together a small but highly qualified team of top professionals with the vision and mission to transform the higher education sector. Within a short period of six years after the establishment of the HEC, several Pakistani universities succeeded within six years in gaining top rankings among the leading 300, 400 and 500 of the world (Times Higher Education rankings, the gold standard).

In August 2016, Thomson Reuters compared the high quality and highly cited publications from Pakistan with those of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. In an article entitled ‘Another BRIC in the Wall’, Thomson Reuters paid glowing tributes to the Pakistan transformation that we had initiated in the higher education sector. It concluded “Pakistan has emerged as the country with the highest percentage of Highly Cited Papers compared with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).” These policies were also praised by neutral external experts who carried out independent assessments for the World Bank, British Council and USAID. The tremendous contributions by Dr Akram Sheikh, Dr Sohail Naqvi and other colleagues will always be remembered.

Particularly important was the emphasis placed by the HEC during those days on quality rather than numbers. This is reflected in the fact that our international research publications in the world’s high quality “impact factor” journals rose exponentially. Pakistani scientists and academicians could publish only about 800 research publications in reputable international journals annually in 2003. This changed dramatically after the establishment of the HEC, with emphasis placed on cutting edge high quality research. The number of such publications soared from 800 in the year 2003 to about 8,000 by the year 2008 and to about 19,000 publications by 2019.

This was simply amazing, as no country in the world had exhibited such rapid progress in past history. Remarkably, according to Web of Science data, we overtook India in terms of international publications in high quality journals on a per capita basis in 2017, rising from 44 publications per 10 million population (about 400 percent behind India) in the year 2000 to 916 publications per 10 million population (about 20 percent ahead of India) by 2018.

The remarkable transformation that occurred between 2003 and 2008 was described as “a golden period” for higher education in Pakistan by the chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science Technology and Development, Prof Michael Rode of Austria. After I resigned in 2008, in protest against the blocking of scholarship funds of Pakistani scholars in Europe and other countries by the then PPP government, Prof Rode wrote an article about the Pakistan’s higher education sector in 2008. He wrote, and I quote, “Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years”.

The world’s most prestigious scientific society, the Royal Society (London), of which I happen to be a Fellow, published a book entitled ‘A New Golden Age’ and the example of Pakistan was given in it as the best model to be followed by other developing countries. ‘Nature’, the world’s leading science journal, published four editorials and several articles applauding Pakistan’s progress.

The rapid developments in Pakistan under my stewardship were seen as a threat by top Indian leadership. India also decided to close down its UGC, and set up a new organization on the pattern of the HEC. The ‘Higher Education Commission of India (HECI)’ was accordingly established last year.

Under the visionary leadership of Nehru, India had established the Indian Institutes of Technology. There are now 23 such institutions. They are the major reason of India’s rapid progress in the engineering and information technology sectors. My own scheme to establish a network of foreign universities in 2007 almost succeeded. Firm agreements were made at the time with Germany, France, Austria, China, and Italy and some 30 top foreign universities agreed to collaborate and help establish seven new Pakistani engineering universities across Pakistan with their degrees being offered locally. Unfortunately, that scheme was abandoned at the last moment by the PPP government.

However the Pak-Austrian Fachhochschule is now ready to go and classes should start later this month. All credit goes to Mr Imran Khan who recognized the importance of my projects and gave me a go-ahead in 2017 with funding from the KP government. I am now working hard to establish other such universities across the country with provincial funding.

Another visionary project that we have promoted and funded through the Knowledge Economy Task Force is that of starting technical education at the Matric level (Matric TECH). This will lead to integrated formal and vocational education. The plan will lead to the development of much needed skill sets in our Matric students. Initially this pilot project will be implemented in 16 schools of Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir. They will be provided skills in specific technologies like Construction, Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics, Textiles, Metallurgy, Automobiles, Information Technology etc;

So my dream for developing a “skilled Pakistan” has finally begun to be realized.

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

Email: [email protected]