Pakistan must transition to a knowledge economy

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

UNDER the dynamic leadership of Imran Khan, Pakistan is at the threshold of a new era in which it can migrate from a weak natural resource based economy to a strong knowledge economy. This requires our Prime Minister to personally champion the cause of education, science, technology and innovation so that Pakistan can stand with dignity in the comity of nations.
The economic directions of Pakistan must change, if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We must drastically change the strategy for socio-economic development as natural resources have lost their importance. It is the ability of nations to manufacture and export high value added goods, which determines their state of development. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that tiny Singapore with a population 40 times less than that of Pakistan (5.5 million) has exports of US $ 330 billion, 15 times higher than those of Pakistan that stagnate at about US $ 24 billion. Singapore has no natural resources and yet the exports per citizen in Singapore are 600 times higher than Pakistan.
To change tracks Pakistan must give the highest priority to education, science, technology and innovation. Firstly we must completely revamp and integrate our school level education as done in India or Sri Lanka. There needs to be a single national system of school education with a single National Board, a single exam across the country and a single national system of hiring school teachers. The Madrasas should also be integrated into the same system.
Secondly the thousand or more technical colleges need to be upgraded by converting 30 of them to top class teachers training centres in collaboration with foreign partners. These can then supply the high quality teachers needed in the thousand or so technical training colleges, so that their standards can be improved.
Accompanied with this we need to upgrade higher Education, science, technology and innovation. This requires a number of specific measures. The most important aspect of this is to focus on faculty development. There has been a significant expansion of new universities without taking adequate care if qualified faculty was available. The result has been a sharp deterioration in the quality of education, reflected from the fact that while there were several universities in 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. HEC should therefore set aside 50% of its annual development budget for sending 5,000 students abroad for PhD level training each year for thenext 10 years and ensure placements in universities 1 year prior to their return. In addition, about 1,000 young persons below the age of 35 (who have completed PhDs in local universities) should be selected after a basic competence test each year and sent abroad to technologically advanced countries annually for a 2 year MS program followed by one year post-doctoral training so that their basic command over the subject could be improved. Our PhD level faculty is presently too weak and needs to be strengthened.
The foreign faculty hiring program initiated by me when I was Chairman HEC, which allowed good foreign faculty to be hired and placed in various universities for varying time periods, should be revived. The foreign faculty members should be required to submitprojects that should be peer reviewed and funded in collaboration with local faculty, (including PhD student co-supervision).
Universities are ranked in this day and age not on the basis of their size, infra-structure and facilities but on the basis of their research output. So we need to place maximum emphasis on developing a strong research culture, a process that I had initiated in 2003 that has led to an increase of research publications from 800/year in 2003 to over 15,000 per year by 2018 in reputable international journals. To revive this effort, at least 25% of the Annual Development Budget of HEC should be set aside for funding research in universities, basic and applied, including promotion of innovation, establishment of technology parks, joint projects with industry etc.
The $ 100,000 research grant/student program for returning students after completing PhD degrees (initiated by me in 2004 but later frozen) should be revived. The projects should be submitted one year before their return date and be in collaboration with their foreign Supervisors or other tenured faculty members in the foreign universities where they completed PhD degrees. This would result in thousands of international collaborations and help boost research standards. HEC also needs to streamline the research grant program so that projects are approved or rejected within 90 days from date of receipt. Projects should be received round the year (and not just twice a year) with no deadlines.
To promote innovation, both the Ministry of Science & technology as well as HECshould create a “Revolving Innovation Fund” to support indigenous technology development. Both these organisations should also revive the joint University–Industry national self-reliance program initiated by me when I was Federal Minister of Science & Technology (2000-2002) and later Chairman HEC (2002-2008) with at least 20% of project cost being contributed by industry for “industry need” driven projects.
Accompanying this should be certain key policy measures that the government should take to ensure technology development within the country. For this it should become mandatory that allnational projects as well as FDI programs should have a minimum of 5% of project costs set asidefor technology transfer. A Committee under the umbrella of Planning Division comprising leading scientists and engineers in the country should clear each project, ensuring that there is a genuine appropriate component of technology development/transfer before the project is processed by the Planning Division for approval by CDWP/ECNEC
The government should also transform 10 of our best universities into “Research Universities” and 10 of the Best Research Centres to “International Centres” by tripling their operational budgets and providing liberal Development Grants. Selection of the above should be made strictly on competitive merit based on present research performance and not on political or other considerations
Distance Learningprogrammes such as those of iMOOCS developed in the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (Karachi University) should be integrated into normal teaching programs in schools, colleges and universities in order to improve standards. These are available at www.lej4learning.com.pk
HEC should be made as an autonomous body as was the situation when it was originally established. It was brought under the Ministry of Education by the PPP government, its status degraded, and the status of Executive Director as equal to the Federal Secretary of the government was withdrawn. This stifled its operations. Its original status and powers should be restored as those that existed when I was Chairman HEC, with powers to hold DDWP meetings independently of the Ministry of Education.
The government should set up a National Advisory Body comprising top scientists/engineers in the country. This should serve as a Think Tank and advise the Prime Minister of the way forward to transition to a strong knowledge economy.
Pakistan has a window of opportunity now under a government that is clean and determined to progress. It is a “now or never” situation. We must all join hands and rise to the occasion.

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