Higher education in Pakistan in urgent need of reform

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Pakistan has the world’s fifth-largest population, at around 212 million. About 67% of the population is younger than 30 years of age. In any country, that would be regarded as a strength. This strength, however, if mismanaged, can be a recipe for disaster.

This being said, there is a need to provide Pakistan’s youth with good-quality education. The government established a Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002, with Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, a well-known scientist, as its founding chairman. Until 2008, the HEC was performing very well. Adequate funds were provided to it and it launched several new initiatives and revolutionized higher education in Pakistan. Many countries acknowledged Pakistan’s achievements in promoting this sector, while some requested assistance from Pakistan to rectify their own educational sectors along the same lines.

Unfortunately, since 2008 the last two governments have politicized the HEC and as a result, it could not deliver what it used to. Funding was reduced sharply, political appointees were inducted, merit was ignored, decisions were based on party politics, nepotism was rampant, and corruption and incompetence were witnessed widely.

However, the recently appointed chairman, Dr Tariq Banuri, a well-known personality holding an engineering degree from a Pakistani university and a PhD in economics from Harvard University in the US, has brought back some hope for the commission. He has diversified work experience, from the government sector to the private sector, non-governmental organizations, overseas work, teaching, research, and management. Based on his competence and rich experience, it is expected that he will improve the HEC’s performance and bring it back to its past glory.

Pakistan is passing through a very critical stage and facing the severe challenges of an emerging economy. Its geo-strategic location makes its development even more challenging, as conflicting interests of major powers all lie in this region.

Currently, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) requires a well-educated, well-trained workforce. However, Pakistan is lacking in some areas. For example, an “economic corridor” requires a huge amount of logistics, but in Pakistan there is not a single public or private university teaching logistical engineering.

The demand for logistics experts is very much the need of the hour. It is strongly recommended that some of the leading universities launch specialist courses on logistic engineering immediately.

Similarly, there is talk about railway linkages between Pakistan and neighboring countries such as China, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Central Asia, and upgrades of the rail systems in Pakistan. But there is not a single university in the country offering programs in railway engineering. In China, by contrast, there are specialized universities dedicated for railway engineering. As a result, China has become the No 1 country in the world in high-speed rail coverage, which reached 25,000 kilometers in 2017. It is necessary that Pakistan’s leading engineering universities launch railway engineering degree programs.

CPEC is focused on the energy sector, petrochemicals, mining, agriculture and industrialization. A simple civil, mechanical or electrical engineer won’t do the job at hand. Pakistan needs relevant specialized human resources in all of the above-mentioned fields.

The HEC may plan to produce the requisite human resource within Pakistani universities. Although China is contributing a major part of human-resource development for Pakistan, with 28,000 Pakistani students currently  studying in that country, it is still necessary to develop Pakistani universities to meet the emerging demands for the country’s future development.

Many talented young Pakistanis are performing very well in other countries. I have met many high-achieving Pakistani students abroad whose talents have been recognized by their respective universities overseas. Many universities in Europe and the US speak highly of Pakistani students. Unfortunately, most of the extraordinary students prefer to stay in foreign countries after completion of their educations. The HEC needs to attract such talent back into Pakistan and help the country retain them long-term.

The HEC may require internal reforms as a first step and depoliticization. All incompetent and illicit appointments should be nullified. Merit-based inductions should be streamlined. Corruption must be brought under control.

Then, with the consultation of stakeholders, the HEC may conduct “technology foresight” to determine the real demands for education; new fields, new disciplines, and new specializations may be identified. Once priorities are identified, resources may be dedicated to achieve the required results.

It might be an uphill task, and may require some time. But the country and its higher-education policy are in dire need of reforms. I trust the newly appointed chairman, Dr Banuri, has the capabilities to meet the expectations of the intellectual community of Pakistan, and I wish him all the best in his endeavors.

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