Advances in engineering education in Pakistan — I

Tuesday / May 17 2011

Newspaper : The Express Tribune

Engineering represents the backbone of any country aspiring to migrate to a knowledge economy. The strengthening of engineering, education and research leads to national self-reliance, as it creates the necessary strengths in many fields through the development of indigenous capabilities for manufacturing machinery used in industry and agriculture, as well as sophisticated defence equipment that can be used within a country or exported to earn valuable foreign exchange.

When I was appointed as the minister of science and technology in March 2000, and later became the founding chairman of the HEC in October 2002, it was decided to give the highest priority to engineering sciences. The following steps taken have considerably strengthened the engineering sector in Pakistan, although we still have a long way to go.

Firstly, it was decided that the ministry of science and technology should start funding programmes in the higher education sector with a focus on engineering education — this was a sharp departure from the previous practice, as the ministry had previously funded institutions under its own fold, such as the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR). It was felt that science and engineering could not be strong in Pakistan without a critical mass of high quality scientists and engineers, and that this was only possible if our engineering, and other, universities were strengthened. Endowments were, therefore, created for every public sector engineering university. The concept of creating endowments by the government through its development funds did not previously exist in Pakistan. The ministry of finance and the planning division were, in general, opposed to the idea, as they felt that this would block the funds unnecessarily. However, we felt that it would provide long-term sustainability to universities instead of sporadic assistance through development projects. We, therefore, pushed the idea through, and each public sector engineering university was given endowments, ranging from Rs100 million to Rs200 million, to promote their masters and PhD programmes. Till 2002, all our engineering universities had hardly produced 10 PhDs in 55 years (as compared to about 3,000 PhDs produced by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in the same period) — a shameful situation. They were wrongly labelled as ‘universities’ — they were really low-level colleges, since a university is judged by its creativity, reflected from its output of high quality publications in reputable international journals, international patents, PhD output and international recognition of its contributions.

Secondly, as chairman of the HEC, I decided to focus on strengthening the faculty in engineering at our universities. Thus, out of the 5,000 foreign scholarships approved, about 2,000 scholarships were for engineering sciences (at a cost of about Rs18 billion for the engineering scholarships, with about Rs9 million being spent on each student over a five-year period). Economics and social sciences were also given a priority with about 35 per cent of the scholarships allocated to these disciplines, but only about 10 per cent of the applicants in social sciences actually succeeded in passing the competitive tests, indicating how weak the social sciences had become. A four year undergraduate programme was introduced, instead of the previous two year programme, with the aim to strengthen basic sciences, humanities and social sciences so that students receive a broad-based education.

Thirdly, projects worth between Rs3 billion to Rs10 billion, for strengthening facilities and faculty, were approved for each engineering university. The result: Today, out of all Pakistan’s universities, the institutions that have achieved high international rankings are all engineering universities (for example, NUST is at 274 in the world and UET Lahore is at 281 in engineering sciences). No Pakistani university had been able to reach such world rankings previously, so this was a great leap forward. Mehran Engineering University is also ranked among the top 400 in Pakistan, while COMSATS has been coming up very fast and has already attained number six position in the ranking of universities in Pakistan. The NED University of Engineering and Technology has been slow in establishing a strong research base and, is now, lagging far behind newcomers such as NUST, UET (Lahore), Mehran Engineering University, as well as COMSATS.