Monday September 20, 2021

Foreign engineering universities

Within 50 miles of Islamabad, off the main motorway to Peshawar, an exciting new university has emerged. Called the Pak-Austrian Fachhochschule, it represents the materialization of a dream on which I have worked for the last 15 years.

It all started in 2005 when I came up with a proposal to set up a network of high quality engineering universities in Pakistan in collaboration with partners in Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, Italy, China, Korea and other countries. As chairman HEC, I presented this proposal to the then president Musharraf and got his full support. I then visited many countries and persuaded 30 leading universities to collaborate in the establishment of seven foreign engineering universities in Pakistan.

When I presented this project to Prof Haroon Ahmed, Master at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, he was impressed by its brilliance and offered to resign from his position. Being a Master of a Cambridge College is no mean recognition. Only two Asians have achieved this distinction, one being Prof Amartya Sen from India who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, and the other being Prof. Haroon Ahmed who was also the head of the world famous Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Haroon Ahmed was excited about my idea of establishing the network of high-quality engineering universities in collaboration with foreign partners in Pakistan. He resigned from his position as Master at Corpus Christi College and then worked with me for several years to put the programme together. Four projects were initially approved by ECNEC in 2007 for new foreign engineering universities in Lahore (with Germany and Austria), Karachi (with Italy) and Islamabad (with China). Classes were to commence in temporarily arranged building facilities in October 2008, but the entire programme was abandoned by the new PPP government that came into power.

However, I persisted, and finally some ten years later, with the strong support of Imran Khan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government approved the project of the Pak Austrian Fachhochschule in 2018. Fachhochschule are high-level polytechnics in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and in many other countries that offer Bachelors and Masters degrees. Their students are in great demand by industry as they are trained not just in theory of engineering but in applications, so that they are well prepared to understand and solve industrial problems.

I wanted however to create a new type of a hybrid university that will be both a Fachhochschule and a full-fledged engineering university that will train students at PhD and postdoctoral levels in various cutting edge fields of engineering education. The heart of the university will be a technology park so that the prime objective of the university will not just be to provide education or carry out research, but to develop and help commercialise products that can contribute to the growth of high-technology exports from Pakistan. No such hybrid engineering university existed in the world, but the foreign partners were excited at this unique concept and enthusiastically agreed to help in establishing such an institution

Within 2.5 years of the project approval in 2018, the university construction was completed, faculty enrolled and classes started. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan in September 2020 and represents a shining example of what determination and persistence can achieve in spite of various hurdles and bottlenecks. It has emerged in record time as a shining example of excellence in engineering education as 100 percent of its faculty has PhD degrees, thus becoming the only university of Pakistan, and possibly of the Subcontinent with such strong credentials.

It is probably the first university in the world with eight foreign universities from Austria and China that are involved in its development and that will ultimately offer their degrees to the best students. Thus each foreign university has identified itself with the development of one or two departments, and is in the process of training the faculty, developing the curriculum, controlling the examination systems, supervising the quality assurance systems and eventually offering its degrees to those students who can meet the rigorous quality criteria laid down by down by the foreign partners. This will ensure the highest level of engineering education in the country. About ten million dollars have been set aside for the technology park.

After years of effort, I have recently persuaded the Punjab government to establish a similar university near Sialkot. A project to establish such a hybrid engineering university was approved by the Punjab government a couple of months ago and if all goes well, this new university should begin to function within three years. The aim of this university will again be to equip our youth with the most recent, advanced, and up-to-date hands on knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies. This will not only bridge the gap between our prevailing educational level and international industry demands, but will also have a direct impact in boosting the country’s economy by providing more experienced and talented individuals to local industry.

Initially, the university will focus in the following five fields: 1) Industrial Engineering; 2) Chemical and Materials Engineering; 3) Information Technology; 4) Agricultural Engineering; and 5) Business Management, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Industrial leaders around Sialkot, Gujranwala and Gujrat are very excited and several meetings have been held with the top industrialists as well as senior representatives of the respective Chambers of Commerce and Industry to ensure that the programmes are focused on local industrial needs and result in substantial enhancement in national exports.

These are all initiatives of the Knowledge Economy Task Force established by the present government. The prime minister is the chairman of the task force while I happen to be the vice chairman. The task force has succeeded in launching a large number of projects of great national importance and the engineering universities that are now being established can prove to be a game changer, as happened in India with the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

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