The amazing developments that are occurring in various scientific fields are impacting our lives in a million different ways. We have all witnessed the communications revolution triggered by the internet. Similar spectacular developments have occurred in material sciences, though these may be less noticeable. The planes we travel on or the cars we drive all use stronger lighter materials that employ carbon fibres or nanotechnologies, replacing metals. The Harry Potter ‘disappearing cloak” is now a reality, with the advent of metamaterials that can bend light. Objects cloaked with such materials become invisible as light bends around them. Genomics is transforming agriculture and stem cells promise to change the way medicine will be practised tomorrow. The discovery of new more effective medicines and better health care has resulted in a lengthening of life spans by 15-20 years during the last century in most developed countries. The growing understanding of the underlying causes of ageing and the new anti-ageing compounds that are being discovered (resveratrol, NAD) should lead to human beings living far longer lives than possible today. The blind can today see with their tongue using a device commercialised by a US company (Wicab) and cars can be driven just by thought control. Many of these and other exciting discoveries are described in a book that I recently wrote entitled “The Wondrous World of Science” that has also now been translated into Chinese language. The late Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg once stated at a lecture in Trieste, Italy that there was a time when necessity was the mother of invention but that time has gone. Now inventions are coming fast and furious, and are becoming our daily necessities.
So in this age of discovery that we live in, natural resources have diminishing importance. Knowledge has become the most important factor for socio-economic development. Countries that have realized that the secret of their development lies in their children and have invested massively in education, science, engineering and innovation have forged ahead, achieving rapid socio-economic development, leaving others behind. For Pakistan to emerge from the shackles of foreign dependence and stand with dignity in the comity of nations, we need to unleash the creative potential of 100 million young below the age of 19 that constitute some 54% of our population. We need to tap into this vast reservoir of creativity by imparting high quality education and employ it to migrate from our present low value added agricultural economy to a high value added knowledge economy. Alas Pakistan spends only 1.9% of its GDP on education, in spite of promises made by successive governments to give the highest priority to education, placing us among the bottom eight countries of the world. The huge pool of illiteracy and poverty serves as a fertile breeding ground for crime and terrorism. It is what we are sowing that we are reaping.
Pakistan had made a wonderful beginning to enter the knowledge age by establishing the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which operates directly under the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The fantastic progress made in the higher education sector that deramatically transformed the landscape of most of our universities in a short span of six years between 2003 and 2008 sent alarm bells ringing in India. A detailed presentation was made to the Indian Prime Minister on 22nd July 2006 about the remarkable transformation that was under way in Pakistan under my stewardship of the Higher Education Commission. These developments were seen as a growing threat to India’s leadership in science. An article about the presentation to the Indian Prime Minister and the decisions taken (“Pak Threat to Indian Science” by Neha Mehta) was published in India’s leading English daily newspaper The Hindustan Times on 23rd July 2006. It described the measures that Pakistan had taken to strengthen its universities and promote research. India then decided to follow Pakistan’s footsteps by closing down its University Grants Commission and forming a new body patterned on HEC, named the National Commission for Higher Education and Research. This has been approved by the Indian Cabinet and will be coming up to Lok Sabha for approval.
However enemies of Pakistan were at work to try and undo all the good work done. We have far more to fear from the wolves in sheep”s clothing that exist within us. A malicious campaign was launched to destroy HEC, led by the former Federal Minister of Higher Education and Training supported by some 200 Parliamentarians with forged degrees. The PPP government was determined to shed HEC into pieces though the devolution process and issued a notification to this effect. I had to go to the Supreme Court of Pakistan twice pointing out that the HEC could not be devolved as the federal nature of higher education was protected under the 18th amendment. I also pointed out that higher education all over the world is a federal subject, be it India, Korea, Turkey, UK and other countries. It was also essential for national integration and uniformity of standards. It was for this reason that the Constitutional Reform Committee formed in connection with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution had deliberated and decided that the primary and education issues could be dealt with by the Provinces, but since issues relating to higher education have a direct bearing on national integration, national development, and cohesion, they must be dealt with at the Federal level. The false propaganda that provinces have no say in higher education is pure nonsense. All the provinces are presently represented by Provincial secretaries or their nominees in the governing body of the Higher Education Commission and therefore they all have a determining role to play already in all the projects that are approved at the higher education level. The other experts nominated by the Prime Minister as members of the Higher Education Commission are also selected taking care of a provincial balance.
It was also after huge efforts that the international credibility of HEC had been established and our degrees were recognised internationally. A fragmentation of the HEC would lead to going back to the stone age, and the degrees from Pakistan would no longer be recognised abroad as there would then be no central internationally recognised degree accreditation body. The Supreme Court decision on ,my petition clearly states that Higher Education is fully protected as a federal subject under the 18th Amendment to the constitution and no change can be made in its federal status. The Sind Government has committed a blatant contempt of the Supreme Court by forming a Sind HEC. My petition filed along with Ms. Marvi Memon (PML-N) as a co-petitioner has been taken up by the Sind High Court. PML-N has in its election manifesto openly and strongly supported the complete autonomy of HEC and vowed to undo the harm caused to the higher education sector by the former government. Thank you Mr. Nawaz Sharif !
Pakistan stands at a cross-road. We must realise that we need to declare a nation–wise educational emergency and divert our resources to education if we are to emerge from the quagmire of poverty and terrorism. It is time to act!
The author is the former Federal Minister of Science and Technology, former Chairman of Higher Education Commission and currently President of Pakistan Academy of Sciences