Give the large youth population in Pakistan it is the right time to harness its potential and skills so that they can fulfil their role and responsibilities as citizens of Pakistan
The youth are a large part of Pakistan’s population at the moment, over 60 percent by some counts. Hence, they are the largest single demographic in the country. The restlessness among the youth is also at its height in the country. The level of frustration among the youth of Pakistan is very patent, yet government after government has been unable to grasp its problems and offer constructive and lasting solutions.
Recently I was at the Punjab launch of the skills development programme initiated under the Kamyab Jawan programme initiated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Under this initiative the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission has partnered with the Information Technology University in Lahore to bring a six-month high tech skills programme to the youth in the Punjab. This collaboration aims to bring high-end technical skills to the youth so that they can not only be employable locally, but also offer their skills and expertise abroad. With over 10,000 people applying for just 1,200 places, it was clear that there was great demand, and that the programme can easily be scaled up. This skills programme and its ancillary initiatives are perhaps the largest in recent years, and hopefully will bring in some positive change.
However, the launch of the programme pointed out several other factors, which also must be addressed if this ‘youth bulge’ is to be transformed from a liability to an opportunity. Let me discuss a few points.
First, the very launch of this programme shows that there is something deeply wrong with our higher educations system. We have over two hundred universities in Pakistan which produce millions of graduates, a large number now in technical fields. In the last nearly twenty years, since the inception of the Higher Education Commission in 2002, these has been a dramatic change. But it is not just a game of sheer numbers. As Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood noted when once he had to hire for a technical job, he got a number of theoretically qualified scientists, but none of them had even seen the machine he wanted operated. The fact that scores of people got a degree in, in this case, mechanical engineering, without having to operate even the basic machines in the field, made the degree hollow—a mere piece of paper. The grant of such a degree without some experience on the applied side, is undermining the degree itself.
Therefore, a wholesale revamping of degree programmes in Pakistan needs to be under taken so that they complement the theoretical with the applied, the textual knowledge with the skill. Only then will a truly ‘educated’ person graduate with a degree worth its name. Doing so will also enable the Kamyab Jawan programme to focus on the non-degree holder youth group and provide them with skills. At the moment, a large number of people who have applied for the programme already have a degree, in some cases, even a master’s degree, and so half the time this programme will do what a university should have already done. The only way in which such a programme can succeed is when universities provide skills to their students and programmes such as these enable the non-degree population.
Therefore, a wholesale revamping of degree programmes in Pakistan needs to be under taken so that they complement the theoretical with the applied, the textual knowledge with the skill. Only then will a truly ‘educated’ person graduate with a degree worth its name.
Secondly, the integration of skills training in universities is a very important step in assimilating universities in the larger milieu. For a long time, universities in Pakistan have remained ivory towers. They have produced thousands of science graduates with little understanding of society, given degrees to scores of humanities students who have little clue of the world around them, and have given certificates to tons of social science graduates who have made little contribution to the development of their discipline let alone the country. This was mainly because the public sector universities were shielded from change by large government grants, while the private ones largely cared about making money. However it is only through the integration of different sectors—academia, industry, vocational training etc, that actual development can come. For example, if academia and industry do not speak to each other, millions of STEM graduates—the ones in high demand—might end up with useless degrees. Therefore, interaction and integration of academia with other sectors must be an integral part of every education policy, and in fact, funding should be dependent on it.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in the rush to develop ‘skills,’ one should not forget the most important skill of all—thinking. It is only through free thinking that creative ideas emerge, innovation takes birth, and change is fostered. Free thinking is predicated in a system, and society, where there is freedom of thought and expression, where there are only the minimal of curbs on speech, and where one is able to express oneself without fear. ‘Critical thinking’ as it is sometimes called, is an essential skill for the development of a country. Without it, one can make technicians and low-end workers, but never leaders and change makers.
In developing critical thinking the role of the humanities and social sciences is essential. Most of our philosophy, literature, history and allied departments are often treated as step-children when it comes to funding, focus, and promotion. These disciplines cannot be any longer treated separately. In the integrated knowledge economy of the world, it is the interdisciplinary approach of all disciplines which is leading towards sustainable development. In fact, if one looks at various world leaders, even in the tech industry, a number of their top executives have degrees in the humanities. This is because even in technology-driven companies one needs the fresh thinking which the humanities foster to lead to innovation and development. Therefore the development of an integrated approach where the humanities play a central role with the STEM disciplines is essential.
Lastly, all of the above point towards the creation of a more informed and responsible citizenship model in Pakistan. For a long time, Pakistan has been run from the top, with the government taking the lead in almost everything. But while the government has certain roles and responsibilities, the real onus is on the people. The government only needs to provide and sustain an enabling environment in which effort is then led by the people as citizens and real power holders in the country. Give the large youth population in Pakistan it is the right time to harness its potential and skills so that they can fulfil their role and responsibilities as citizens of Pakistan.
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK