Synergies of science

Wednesday / Jan 17 2018

Newspaper : The News

The higher education sector of Pakistan witnessed a historic development on January 11, 2018: a formal approval was given by the KP government to establish the Pak-Austrian Engineering University in close collaboration with four leading Austrian universities of applied sciences and engineering (Fachhochschule or FH).

The university is being established in Haripur through financial support of about Rs10 billion from the KP government. This will be the first university in the world where a single educational institution (the Pak Austrian University of Applied Sciences and Engineering) would offer degrees from four different Austrian universities. It would also offer Pakistani parents the unique opportunity to expose their children to courses taught at leading foreign universities at an affordable cost without having to send them abroad.

The faculty, curriculum, exams, degrees and quality assurance will be under Austrian control and management. The project is my brainchild and I had also initiated a similar scheme to establish a network of foreign engineering universities when I was the chairman of the Higher Education Commission in 2006. But the projects were abandoned by the PPP government in 2008. As the chairman of the Steering Committee, I have restarted the scheme through the support of the KP government.

The university will be fundamentally different from the ‘normal’ universities that are primarily concerned with imparting education or carrying out basic research. The FH that exist in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other European countries do not offer PhD programmes. Instead, they are largely concerned with the socioeconomic development of the region. As a result, they focus on projects that boost industrial and agricultural development. This would provide an impetus to new start-up companies, create jobs and alleviate poverty.

An eight-member Austrian team that represented senior members from four leading Austrian universities of applied sciences in Vienna, Innsbruck, Graz and St Polten visited the site of the new university in Haripur on January 10, 2018. They also met Imran Khan, who is personally overseeing this project and had discussions with him regarding the future priority areas for KP as well as for Pakistan.

The heart of the university will be a large technology park where new products and processes will be developed in conjunction with Austria and Pakistan. Students with new ideas will be assisted to set up new start-up companies so as to ensure that education is closely aligned with entrepreneurship. Within the technology park, entrepreneurship by Pakistanis and Austrians will guarantee mutual benefits.

The underlying basis of this collaboration is the large consumer market within Pakistan. However, Pakistan has a low technology base as compared with the advanced technological skills of Austria’s nine million-strong population. Collaborative Austria-Pakistan commercial ventures could, therefore, bring significant mutual benefits since the students at the FH will be given the opportunity to enhance the technology base available at the technology park.

Austrian companies with a strong presence in the technology park can become associate members of the management board of the park, receive rent-free premises for the first three years and obtain access to the $15 million set aside as the research and development fund allocated to the project. Entrepreneurs from Pakistan who wish to establish their enterprises in the technology park will receive similar benefits.

Following a series of intense discussions, it was decided that a meeting should be held with the head of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce responsible for this region to bring major Austrian companies to Pakistan. This was done so as to get these companies to interact with corresponding Pakistani institutions and discuss collaborations that could be initiated at the Pak-Austrian University through its technology park. Since the students graduating from the Pak-Austrian University would be trained as per the standards that are expected of students in Austria, Austrian companies would be eager to utilise their skill sets by setting up operations in Pakistan.

Some fields in which effective cooperation is being planned are software engineering as well as other areas of information and communication technologies (ICT). It is a major growth area for Pakistan and it is also the major growth sector in Austria, which has become the European ICT hub. The software sector alone accounts for 25 percent of economic growth and for up to 40 percent of the GDP productivity increase in Austria. The country has also made massive investments in education and training. This could be a natural area of mutual benefit. Many of Pakistan’s 100 million young people are eager to enter the software industry. A related field is that of semiconductors. CISC Semiconductor is a leading supplier of RFID measurement and test solutions in Austria. CISC’s core competences include measurement, test systems, standardisation, design, modelling, simulation, verification and optimisation. CISC could tap into the availability of large numbers of well-trained software engineers in Pakistan and reduce its employment costs significantly while designing chips for the global market.

Energy could be another important area for collaboration. Pakistan has an enormous need for expertise in solar and wind power as well as a fuel industry (biomass), heat-pump manufacturing and boiler manufacturing. In Austria, the electronic supply industry, engineers, OEM wholesalers, installation firms, the heating and heating technology industry, alternative heating techniques, the pipeline and water treatment industry as well as biogas and pellet producers are well-established. There could be significant trade benefits by setting up research and production facilities in the technology park.

Another area of focus is environmental engineering. This includes waste disposal, recycling, wastewater technology companies, wastewater treatment plants, water clarification and purification plants and recycling firms. There is need for such technologies in large cities of Pakistan.

The engineering sector in Pakistan sorely lacks expertise in the production of special alloys for use in automobiles, aircrafts, industrial machinery and defence equipment. Austria has a strong position as the innovation leader in the global metal processing industry. It also has a leading role when it comes to the integration of new processes. This could be of great interest for setting up copper, gold and rare metal extraction plants in Pakistan as the country is replete in many such ores.

Catering equipment is another sphere in which the two countries could collaborate. GastroTeam Handels, the leading makers of catering equipment and kitchen technology for restaurants and cafes in Austria, could enter the local market for such equipment. The production of high-quality bicycles with Austrian technology and students trained at the Pak-Austrian University in Haripur could be another interesting field for cooperation. The two leading Austrian companies – KTM and Puch – could produce bicycles tailored to the needs of Pakistan following research and development work in the technology park using Pakistani engineers who are familiar with local conditions.

A historic beginning has been made in KP that heralds the establishment of similar universities that will impart quality education in Pakistan.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).