Moving towards a knowledge economy

PML-N government is allocating huge resources towards establishing a knowledge infrastructure in Pakistan


Ahsan Iqbal December 11, 2016
The writer is Federal Minister for Planning, Development & Reform. He tweets @betterpakistan

The world has entered into a ‘knowledge age’ and skill and innovative ideas are highly critical for optimal economic growth. At the higher level of abstraction, this was always the case. But what makes the knowledge age different from the industrial or agricultural age? It is the fact that the impact of knowledge on economic growth has increased exponentially in today’s economy.

Being cognisant of these dynamic changes in global economy, the PML-N government is allocating huge resources towards establishing a knowledge infrastructure in Pakistan. It is worth reminding to our cynics that knowledge infrastructure mandates the existence of physical infrastructure. Therefore, it is not a choice of one over the other. Both are highly necessary.

In 1998 as a Federal Minister, I had the honour to play an instrumental role in devising Vision 2010 for Pakistan. It launched the roadmap 2010 for higher education which recommended reform of University Grant Commission (UGC) into an autonomous regulatory body that later became the basis for the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan. The project for producing 5,000 PhDs was also launched in 1999 after I found that there were only 350 PhDs in our universities and majority of them were mature for retirement in next few years.

Dr Attaur Rahman, who was a part of my team in 1998 and later became a Minister in Musharaff’s regime effectively pursued some of our laid down policies of Vision 2010. As a result, the HEC evolved into a respectable entity over the years and we have 7,500 PhDs today. In 2013, I again had the honour to devise Vision 2025 for Pakistan. In Vision 2025, the investment in human capital, innovation, and knowledge are identified as significant contributors to economic growth and our PML-N government is taking concrete steps in the right direction.

To evaluate PM Sharif government’s commitment to transform Pakistan into a knowledge economy, it should be compared with its predecessors. For instance, in last three years of the PML-N government, funds of Rs215 billion are allocated to HEC. Whereas, from 2010-2013, Rs100 billion was allocated towards the HEC. Our government has increased allocation of funds towards HEC by more than 100 per cent. As Nelson Mandela once said: “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

The PML-N government wants to ensure the access to higher education for students from low income households and also especially for female students. It is imperative to point out that when students don’t have a university campus nearby, they have to rely on hostels and this increases the cost of education and as a result, students from low income households get discriminated. Moreover, female students suffer even more because parents are less willing to send their daughters away from home for the sake of education.

Therefore, one of the major initiatives of our government is to build university campus in every district of Pakistan — FATA, Gwadar and Zhob university campuses are a few examples of it. A new Skills University and a world class University of Central Asia & Pakistan will also start functioning from 2017.

Furthermore, a ‘Technology Innovation Fund’ has been set up to finance commercialisation of research by faculty and researchers in universities. The National Endowment of Scholarships for Talent has been set up with seed money of Rs two billion to be increased up to Rs10 billion to provide scholarships based on need and merit. Similarly, the Science Talent Farming project has been launched to polish and develop young talent into proficient scientists. The government is funding various initiatives for developing strong digital infrastructure in universities. Laptop scheme for students, smart university programmes, and establishment of incubators in universities are concrete examples of the initiative.

We want Pakistani students to be at cutting edge of the most advanced scientific knowledge. Historically successive governments in Pakistan have limited their relationship with the US to aid the buying of military armaments. PM Sharif’s government is committed to develop a partnership with the US on the front of education, especially because the secret weapon of the US is its world class universities. In the last meeting of PM Sharif and President Obama, the US-Pakistan knowledge corridor was announced. Under US-Pakistan Knowledge corridor, our goal is to send 10,000 Pakistan students to get a PhD degree from the top US universities in next 10 years. In addition to this we are also supporting initiatives with other friendly countries to have additional 10,000 PhD scholarships.

The PML-N government has launched the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics initiative. For the new technologically driven knowledge economies, we need competence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. Also, the importance of arts and social sciences as subjects largely remained ignored in Pakistan. But to produce critical and innovative minds, we must encourage different art forms among our students. Moreover, social sciences are necessary for philosophical, political, ideological and cultural development of any society. Recently, I had the honour to announce the formation of ‘Pakistan Academy of Social Sciences’, it will promote the development of social sciences and humanities in Pakistan.

Although education has been devolved under 18th Amendment of constitution, we believe that federal government can’t completely absolve itself from the responsibility of state of education in the country. Therefore, the forum of Inter Provincial Committee of Education Ministers has been activated. We have funded three key initiatives to be launched in partnership with provinces, firstly establishment of National Curriculum Council to revise the curriculum from rote learning to critical, creativity and innovation based learning. Secondly, reform of Boards of Intermediate and Secondary Education in the country to align examination with the new curriculum and national standards of merit and transparency. Thirdly, reform of teacher training programmes in the country in partnership with provinces including establishment of Asia’s best teacher training center in Islamabad as a resource center. Recently, a project to establish 24 smart schools as models of technology based embedded learning in ICT area has been launched to create schools of tomorrow.

There is no doubt that numbers have improved in terms of higher education in Pakistan but are we producing the desired quality of scholarship/knowledge? Every university and scholar in Pakistan must ask the following epistemological question: Am I really producing knowledge? Given our contemporary situation and the challenges we face as a country, the production of ‘knowledge’ must be aligned with our real world problems and needs.

In order to do that, a new higher education road map 2025 has been formulated on the following principles. First of all, there will not be any compromise on scientific inquiry and methodology. Second, our universities will not restrict themselves to be teaching centres, they should be the centres of research and innovation. Third, curriculum will encourage critical and innovative thinking and new teaching methods should be used. Fourth, to align and synergise knowledge and production platforms in the economy, universities will take a lead in establishing strong linkages between academia and industry. Fifth, universities will encourage entrepreneurial spirit and responsible leadership skills among students. Sixth, technological advancement is reshaping the global world, we are very much behind in this technological race. Therefore, concerted and coherent effort among universities, industry and government are going to be undertaken to develop world class technological hubs in Pakistan.

The journey of establishing a ‘knowledge economy’ is neither short nor easy. It requires a persistent and collaborative effort. I am sure that through the aforementioned initiatives, a foundation for transformation has been laid and our journey to success has begun.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (11)

Chacha Jee | 4 years ago | Reply Knowledge economy based on Axact degrees.
Kamil Khan | 4 years ago | Reply Ahsan Iqbal mentions the same things over and over. Having observed his proteges, they do little more than go through bullet points. Pakistan definitely needs more Ph.D. students abroad, but tell me whether you can secure 1000 quality candidates a year with such a terrible and unequal primary and secondary education system? Invest in STEM education at those levels. Increase Remember, Vietnam has a literacy rate of 90%, despite being poor, communist, and ravaged by war. It was bombarded by the French and US, but has invested in human capital. Literacy is one reason why Vietnam has emerged as a rising manufacturing power. Ph.Ds are excellent. But they are no good if the literacy rate remains stagnant.
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