Engineering education in national development

Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman

THE EMPHASIS on human resource development, with a special emphasis on engineering, has resulted in the growth of a strong middle class in India that today accounts for about 32 percent of its population, which is increasing by about one percent each year. In Pakistan our neglect of education over the decades has meant a much smaller middle class, only about 12 percent of our population, which is shrinking due to increasing inflation, growing poverty, mounting debt that has doubled in the last three years and rampant corruption.

India collaborated with various technologically advanced countries to help establish seven world class engineering institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in different cities of India.

The extremely poor state of our engineering universities in Pakistan in the year 2000 is reflected from the appalling fact that in the 53 years during 1947 to 2000 our nine engineering universities had together produced only about 10 PhDs in all! In comparison IIT Delhi produced 176 PhDs last year while Tsing Hua University in Beijing produces over a thousand PhDs annually. This is truly shameful for Pakistan, a country claiming to be a nuclear state. Indeed in 2003 we did not have a single genuine engineering university. They were, at best, low level colleges labelling themselves as universities.

Realising the importance of engineering education and research we created significant endowments of Rs100 to 200 million for every engineering university to promote research. The key to a high quality university is faculty. Good universities are not developed by building beautiful buildings but by training and attracting highly creative and eminent faculty members. From the endowment funds some 11,000 scholarships were awarded, about 5,000 of them to send our brightest students to top universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. Almost 2,500 of these were in engineering sciences, including IT and computer sciences.

The availability of liberal research grants and other such measures resulted in a spectacular increase in international research publications from only 500 per year in the year 2000 to about 4600 per year by 2010, about a 900 percent growth. Pakistan was producing only 200 PhDs annually in 2002, but this increased to 700 PhDs per year by 2010. The PhD output of our engineering universities also grew from a total of 10 PhDs in 55 years (an average of 0.2 PhDs per year during 1947 to 2002) to an average of about 14 PhDs per year by 2010, a 150 fold growth.

By the year 2009, two of our engineering universities were ranked among the top 300 of the world (NUST and UET Lahore). While this represents a promising beginning, our international standing is still dismally low. All our nine engineering universities have together produced only 131 PhDs in the last seven years (an average of about two PhDs per year per university), a 70-fold lower productivity than that of IIT Delhi.

Rapid advances being made in Pakistan during 2003-2008 under the Higher Education Commission caused alarm bells to ring in India. A detailed presentation was made by Prof C N R Rao (adviser to the Indian government on Science & Technology) to the Indian prime minister about the rapid progress being made in Pakistan in the higher education sector (article by Neha Mehta “Pak Threat to Indian Science”). This resulted in far reaching decisions by the Indian government to accelerate the development of its higher education institutions.

Over the next five years India will establish 29 new universities and 40 new high level institutes. Nine additional IITs will be established so that India will have 16 World class IITs providing state-of-the-art engineering education. In international rankings of engineering universities, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi are already ranked at 47 and 52, respectively in the world while IIT Kanpur, IIT Madras and IIT Kharagpur are also ranked in the top 100.

In 2005 we embarked on an a visionary project to establish several world class engineering universities in collaboration with Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Austria, China and Korea that would provide world-class engineering education in Pakistan with degrees being awarded by top foreign universities. Each university was to be established in collaboration with a consortium of top foreign universities. Thus nine top German engineering universities formed a consortium of nine top German universities to establish the Pak-German university in Lahore.

Similar consortia were formed with the other countries to establish universities in Karachi, Islamabad, Sialkot, and later when the security situation improved, in Peshawar and Quetta. An attractive feature of each university was an integrated technology park in which foreign companies such as Siemens and Eriksson had agreed to establish their Research & Development Centres.

This would have led to a surge in international patents of new products and processes and a huge increase in high tech exports. Pakistani parents spend about Rs100 billion each year on sending their children to foreign universities. Besides saving this expenditure, the scheme would have led to significant earnings of foreign exchange due to many foreign students coming to Pakistan for study.

The development schemes to establish four of these foreign engineering universities were approved by ECNEC in February 2008, and classes were scheduled to begin in October 2008. Unfortunately disaster struck. The HEC budget was slashed in 2008, scholarships frozen and most development projects, including the establishment of the foreign engineering universities in Pakistan, halted.

A wonderful and unique opportunity to provide high quality engineering education from top foreign universities within Pakistan and to make rapid advances in industry and defence was thrown away. When the scholarships of thousands of Pakistani students studying abroad, many in the engineering sciences, were withheld, causing huge misery in 2008, I resigned in protest in October 2008.

Things did not stop there. A notification was issued by the government on November 30th, 2010 shredding the HEC into pieces. HEC was almost destroyed. Fortunately the Supreme Court of Pakistan accepted my appeal and declared the government notification unconstitutional. HEC has fortunately survived this onslaught. It continues to exist and limp along under difficult financial circumstances in a hostile environment.

The writer is former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of Higher Education Commission. Email:
Courtesy The News

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