A knowledge economy

Wednesday / Nov 16 2016

Newspaper : The News

The impact of one institution on the economy of a nation can be illustrated by MIT. Some 11,000 companies have been formed by graduates of MIT who now employ more than three million persons and have annual sales of two thousand billion dollars. The sales of these companies alone are about a thousand times more than the total exports of Pakistan.

In order to follow this path of developing a strong knowledge economy, we need to first completely reform the way we teach in schools and colleges in order to develop a critical problem-solving approach and a curiosity driven mindset. In order to attract the brightest students into the teaching and research profession we need to raise salaries of teachers and researchers so that they can become the top paid professionals in our country.

This was done by us, under the tenure track system, when I was the chairman of the Higher Education Commission during 2002-2008 but subsequently the salaries were not raised in the same ratio as those in the conventional (BPS) system of appointments, and its attraction has diminished considerably.

The single most important factor that determines the quality of any educational institution is the quality of its faculty. To achieve this we need to select and train the brightest students in top universities abroad to reach a PhD level faculty to student ratio of about 1:10. This would require us to send at least 100,000 students abroad for PhD over the next decade. However, this alone will not be sufficient. We need to attract them back to Pakistan by creating an enabling environment.

One step taken by the HEC in 2006 was to offer research grants of up to $100,000 for which they could apply one year before they were due to return. This was unfortunately stopped in 2009 because of shortage of funds. This research support programme needs to be vigorously re-initiated, now that HEC funding has been restored by the present government. Furthermore, it should be ensured that returning scholars should have jobs on arrival through a well -coordinated placement mechanism with the HEC paying their salaries for the first year, and building additional funds into the budgets of the respective universities that absorb them for subsequent years. This programme too was initiated in 2006 but was badly affected due to the budgetary cuts imposed by the previous government in 2009.

One programme launched by Pakistan in 2005, and which got wide international praise, was that of ‘Open Access Instrumentation’. This involves providing free access to university researchers to sophisticated instrumentation within the country with the HEC making payment of bills to the institutions for the analytical services. This programme too has been curtailed and only 20 percent of researchers are benefiting from the programme now as compared to 2008.

Dynamic and flexible programmes were introduced in 2006 to attract eminent Pakistani researchers settled abroad back to our country. Some 600 highly qualified educationists returned to Pakistan. This programme needs to be revived as there is much to benefit from our diaspora. Systems should be introduced to encourage innovation/entrepreneurship through establishment of technology parks with business incubators to promote new start-up companies, access to venture capital, and facilitation through provision of legal and financial services along with mentorship. The process of international patenting should be facilitated.

The availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) opens up huge opportunities to our students for free access to quality education from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, University of California and other top institutions. We have developed an integrated version of MOOCs (iMOOCs) which was launched by the president of Pakistan some three years ago.

It is available at www.lej4learning.com.pk and is a treasure house of knowledge and provides school, college and university education completely free. This should be introduced into all colleges and universities so that the system of “blended learning” can be encouraged in which face to face interaction with teachers is combined with access to recorded lectures by the world’s leading authorities in their respective fields.

These measures need to be combined with a holistic national policy to transform Pakistan to a strong knowledge based economy. This will require the establishment of a clear short, medium and long-term vision, strategies and action plans for integrating science, technology and innovation (STI) into all sectors of the government ranging from industry and agriculture to health, communications and social services. Officials in the planning ministry need to be trained with the help of suitable experts in carrying out Delphi type Foresight to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Combined with this effort in education we will need to mobilise our industry so that it can take part in the manufacture and export of high technology products. This will require us to strengthen private industry by establishing world class R&D facilities within their premises and incentivise private sector R&D, access to VC funding, techno parks, funding for training of skilled manpower and other actions to promote the development of a knowledge economy. The government will also need to grant ‘pioneering status’ to high-tech industries with suitable long-term tax-free status to promote manufacturing and exports in high-tech fields,  provide government insurance for under-writing risk in new high technology ventures and establish a revolving innovation fund to support indigenous high-technology development in the public and private sectors.

The establishment of knowledge hubs all along the CPEC, with clusters of universities, technical training institutes and industries focused on the manufacture and export of high-technology products, should be initiated immediately. These should be in fields such as engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, new materials, electronics, defence products and other such areas. Our Ministry of Planning should link the approval of all foreign assistance and FDI projects to mandatory knowledge transfer, so that at least five percent of the cost of such projects is set aside for training and indigenous capability development, leading to national self-reliance.

For this to occur we need to have a visionary government with highly professional technocrat cabinet members, who can appreciate the importance and key actions needed for transforming Pakistan into a strong knowledge economy.