Noman Akhter

We live in a world in which innovation drives economies, and universities and research centres are playing a pivotal role in the transformation of nations. You can hang an elephant on a strand of “graphene” that is 150 times thinner than a human hair and the strand will not break since it is 200 times stronger than steel. It has become a multi-million dollar product, though discovered just 5 years ago. The Harry Potter’s disappearing cloak is now a reality by the discovery of metamaterials which have the ability to bend light and hence make objects covered by them invisible. They are now being employed by the arms industry for stealth purposes to cloak tanks, submarines etc. The field of genomics is expanding very rapidly and soon it should be possible to grow genetically modified food crops with salt tolerant genes using sea water. Super-fast gene sequencing under development should allow the entire human genome to be sequenced in minutes, opening the way for personalised medicine! Paper made from stones is already in the market and bullet proof paper has been developed from nanocellulose through application of nanotechnology. Anti-ageing compounds have been discovered that when given to old mice made them younger! Stem cells promise to cure damaged organs and may change the manner in which medicine will be practiced tomorrow. The blind can, amazingly, today see with their tongue, a device commercialised in Wisconsin Science today presents a myriad such opportunities and countries investing in research and innovation are making billions of dollars through such technologies.

Most top universities in the world have integrated technology parks within their fold, so that new ideas can be incubated and emerge as tangible new and innovative products and processes. While not a single Nobel Prize in science has been awarded to anyone from the Islamic world for work carried out with an Islamic country, by comparison ninety Nobel Prizes have been awarded to faculty members and affiliates of just one university in UK: Cambridge University! These include 29 Nobel prizes in Physics, 26 in Medicine, 21 in Chemistry, nine in Economics, two in Literature and two in Peace. Just one college in Cambridge, Trinity College, has produced 32 Nobel Prize winners. Fred Sanger at Kings College Cambridge has won two Nobel Prizes. Similarly according to a study carried out by Kauffman Foundation entitled   “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT”  it was stated that MIT alumni had founded thousands of companies that employ over a million professionals and have annual world sales of about $2 trillion, producing the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world ( ). Universities such as Cambridge and MIT are transforming national economies in a major way today. The world has become decided into two broad groups of nations:  countries that are producers and exporters of technology and those dependent on others on their technological needs. This represents the “knowledge divide” between the haves and have nots

Even small countries in Asia with no natural resources can follow this path to a knowledge economy. All it needs is a visionary government. Singapore with a population ¼ of Karachi has annual exports of over $ 450 billion, 15 times those of Pakistan and the per capita income in Singapore is well above those of Germany, Japan, UK, or USA. The National University of Singapore, ranked among top 25 universities of the world, has a budget of US $ 1.6 billion (Rs. 160 billion), whereas the budgets of all public sector universities in Pakistan added together amounts to only Rs. 78 billion.

Pakistan made significant improvements in its higher education sector during 2003 to 2008 and within 5 years of the establishment of the Higher Education Commission, five of its universities were internationally ranked among the top 300-500 of the world. This progress even alarmed India ( ). Unfortunately it was short lived as the previous government with 200 Parliamentarians with forged degrees went about systematically destroying all the good work that had been done. The result: in the recent Shanghai rankings of world universities, there is not a single university of Pakistan ranked among the top 500 of the world. What a shame!

The Planning Division should support the Higher Education Commission to undertake the following steps to uplift universities so that they can help Pakistan transition to a strong knowledge economy: (1) Send at least 2,000 of our brightest students for PhD to top universities of the world each year, so that university faculty can be strengthened. (2)   Restore the $ 100,000 research grant program for each returning student for which they could apply a year before their return. This program was operative in 2006-2008 but was abandoned later. (3)   Ensure proper placement of returning PhD scholars at least 6-12 months before their return. (4)   Restore the differential between tenure track system and BPS system as the salaries under the tenure track system have eroded with time. (5)   Give at least 50% weightage in ranking of universities to student: PhD faculty ratio in universities.. (6)   Streamline the research grants program so that projects are approved or rejected within 90 days at maximum. (7)   Magnify the annual research budget to 10% of total recurring/development budget of universities of Rs. 78 billion (i.e. to Rs. 7.8 billion). (8)   Freeze/reduce development funding of those universities that have not adopted the tenure track system of appointments and ensure that all new faculty appointments are contractual in nature with permanency being granted after international assessment. (9) Strengthen and simplify the Open Access Instrumentation program so that analysis can be carried out by researchers in any labs of their choice free of charge without cumbersome procedures. (10) Strengthen the digital library program so that all important journals and abstracts and search engines such as Scholar One are made available to every user. (11) Transform 10 of our best universities and 10 of our best Research Centres to world class “Research Universities” and “International Research centres” of top international standards by strengthening faculty, and enhancing research funding. (12) Enforce and implement  Quality Assurance programs in universities vigorously.(13) Lay down Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for faculty members and link their salaries to performance (14). Make it mandatory for all faculty members in universities to carry out part time work in industry, agricultural institutions or social organisations as an important KPI -– universities must not be ivory towers but contribute to society in a meaningful manner.

Over 50% of the population of Pakistan, about a 100 million, is below the age of 20. Pakistan must unleash this huge potential by investing in their education and training so that we can transition to a strong knowledge economy. The present government should declare a National Educational Emergency and allocate at least 7% of GDP to education as was provided in the Educational Policy approved by the previous government.

The author is former Federal Minister of Science & Technology & former Chairman of Higher Education Commission. He is Chairman of FPCCI Committee on Higher Education, Science & Technology.

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