For a Different Democracy (Part 19)

Atta-ur-rehman-1.jpg

Prof Atta-ur-Rahman,
FRS, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

A democracy just cannot work without education. Pakistan has never had a true democracy as education has been deliberately given the lowest priority since the power base through which the feudal rulers exercise their strangle hold will be eroded if Pakistan became a highly educated nation.
Something very exciting is however happening in Pakistan presently. The dream that I had dreamt in 2005 of establishing a Network of foreign engineering universities across Pakistan, and worked so hard towards it, is slowly but surely being transformed into a reality.Engineering represents the single most important discipline that impacts the growth of national self-reliance. It covers such important industrial fields as engineering goods, industrial machinery, automobiles, electronics, household appliances, computers, metallurgy, alloys, polymers, novel textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals. It is for this reason that I decided to give special emphasis to the engineering sector when I was the Federal Minister of Science & Technology and later the Chairman Higher Education Commission.
It is notable that India decided to strengthen its engineering sector back in the 1950s under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and many world class Indian Institutes of Technology were established over the last several decades. At present, there are sixteen IITs in Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras, Guwahati, Roorkee, Hyderabad, Patna, Bhubaneshwar, Ropar, Jodhpur, Gandhinagar, Indore, Mandi and Varanasi. Of these 16, 10 were established after 2004This emphasis on strengthening education in general, and engineering universities in particular has resulted in the emergence of a strong middle class in India that accounts for about 32% of its population and is growing at a pace of about 1% per year. It has also impacted the rapid development of the mega industries (steel, automobiles, software etc.) in India as it has the critical mass of highly qualified manpower that is able to serve as the engine of growth. The huge growth in the IT sector, with exports of over $ 100 billion annually, in India is a direct result of the visionary path that was taken under Jawaharlal Nehru. Information technology in India consists of two major components: IT services and business process outsourcing (BPO). According to NASSCOM, the sector aggregated revenues of US$160 billion in 2017, with export revenue standing at US$99 billion.
Realising the importance of engineering education and research in the year 2,000 when I was the Federal Minister of Science & Technology, we decided to strengthen the existing engineering universities by creating significant endowments of Rs. 100-200 million for every engineering university in order to promote research. Later when I became Chairman HEC about 5,000 PhD level scholarships were awarded to the brightest students of Pakistan after a competitive national test, over 2,000 of which were in the field of engineering and computer sciences. The efforts to strengthening engineering led to dramatic progress in Pakistan with several of our universities being ranked in the top 300, 400 and 500 of the world. In the Information Technology sector, we gave a 15 year tax holiday and this along with other measures resulted in IT business to grow from $ 30 million in 2001, now to $ 3.2 billion, over a 10,000 % growth
An important step taken to strengthen engineering education and research in Pakistan was to establish a network of several world class foreign engineering
universities. The model chosen was a unique one by all accounts. The students in Pakistan would have been enrolled into courses offered by the top engineering universities in Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Austria, China and other countries. The model involved partnership with consortia of top universities (rather than with any single foreign university) so that good quality faculty could become available in sufficient numbers. Moreover each foreign university would have been responsible for setting up just one or two departments within the Pakistani university so that “Multi-degree Pakistani Universities” would have been established with several good foreign universities giving their degrees to the students in a single Pakistani university. Such a system exists nowhere else in the world and provides the advantage that a single Pakistani university could benefit from the strength of several leading foreign engineering universities. The students would have studied exactly the same curriculum as offered by the foreign universities, they would have been taught by foreign high quality faculty and they would have received degrees from reputable foreign universities without ever going abroad. This would have brought world class engineering education at a very affordable cost to Pakistani students and created the needed momentum for our engineering industry to start massive investments in engineering industries. At present Pakistani parents spend about Rs. 100 billion annually in sending their children abroad for studies. Much of this money would have been saved. Thus 9 top German engineering universities formed a strong consortium to establish a world class engineering university in Lahore. Similar consortia were formed by Italy, Austria and China. Lands for all the universities were generously provided by the provincial governments and the Prime Minister of Pakistan laid the foundation stone of the Pakistan-French University. Classes of the German, Austrian, Italian and Chinese were planned to commence in October 2008.
Interestingly, the new technical universities were based on the novel concept that education and employment are strongly and permanently linked and that it was important to ensure this. Each university would therefore have had a technology park within its premises. The university/technology park complex was envisaged to produce qualified and trained engineers who would have serviced local industry, carried out R&D work, become entrepreneurs and, most importantly, brought inward investment into Pakistan because highly trained manpower would have been available to foreign investors. The high tech R & D Centres in technology parks would have focused on developing commercially viable products or services, developing prototypes and undertaking small scale production in order to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the products of services realised in the R & D Centres. The projects for four of these university in collaboration with Germany, Italy, Austria and China were approved by ECNEC on February, 2008 at a cost of about Rs. 160 billion over a 10 year period.. The projects were approved by ECNEC in February, 2008 and were again presented to the present Prime Minister on 12th May, 2008. The Prime Minister approved the implementation of this program. Then disaster struck.On 19th May, 2008, just three months after ECNEC had granted approval of the projects, the PPP Cabinet cancelled the program. The foreign countries with whom the negotiations had been carried out over several years for the establishment of these universities just could not believe what had happened. Pakistan had lost all credibility as a nation in their eyes.
However I did not give up. I explained the concept to Mr. Imran Khan and he enthusiastically agreed to set up the Austrian University in Haripur Hazara entirely from funds of the KPK government. Later I met Mr. Shahbaz Sharif and he too enthusiastically agreed to fund the establishment of the Italian engineering university in Lahore with funding from the Punjab government. I returned from Torino, Italy this week and the project is on track. We expect to commence classes of both universities by September next year. Alas Sindh government is lagging behind in spite of my several attempts to establish a similar foreign engineering university in Sindh.
Pakistan urgently needs a different democracy in which education is given the highest national priority so that we can transition to a sustainable, inclusive knowledge economy.

— The author is former Federal Minister of Science & Technology, former Chairman Higher Education Commission and Chairman of UN Committee for Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP

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