The changing face of higher education

Published: January 24, 2013
The writer is a former federal minister for science and technology and served as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission from 2002-08

The writer is a former federal minister for science and technology and served as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission from 2002-08

With the growing world population having already crossed the seven-billion mark and with a much larger number of young persons seeking admissions to colleges and universities, there is pressure to expand the higher education sector by building new institutions.

Technology is, however, opening new exciting opportunities through distance learning that did not exist a decade ago. In 2001-02, when I was heading the ministry of science and technology, we rapidly improved the information technology (IT) infrastructure in Pakistan. Internet access was rapidly expanded from 29 cities to 2,000 cities and to other towns and villages during this period. Fibre was expanded from a few dozen cities to 1,000 cities and towns. The cost of bandwidth for a 2MB line was reduced from a ridiculous $87,000 per month to only $2,000 per month and later to $900 per month, making this the cheapest rate in the region. A satellite was placed in space (Paksat 1) and a couple of transponders were set aside for distance learning courses of the Virtual University.

The rapid improvements in the IT infrastructure had a positive impact on a number of sectors with the higher education sector also benefiting from these advances. In 2004, when I was chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), we started to look at various ways to provide high quality education to our university students. A digital library was established that provided free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks and monographs from 220 international publishers to our university students. Such a facility is not available for free nationwide even in the US, Europe and Japan. Today, all Pakistani public-sector universities and many private-sector ones, too, have excellent state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities with lectures being delivered by top professors from the US, Europe and Japan, and questions being asked by students from Pakistan in live interactive sessions. Some 2,000 lectures have been delivered in the last three years under this HEC initiative.

It is time for Pakistan to now benefit from a large number of excellent online courses that have become available internationally for distance education. These can be of particular use to our college and university students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the first to open up its courses to the world through the MIT Open Courseware initiative. This was quickly made use of by the HEC in 2005 when a mirror website of the MIT Open Courseware was established in Pakistan to facilitate quick downloading. These courses were carefully vetted and thousands of CDs based on these courses were distributed to university departments. This material from the MIT is the same as that used by the university’s faculty in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Another exciting initiative is known as Udacity. This began somewhat serendipitously when Dr Sebastian Thrun, an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University, along with Google’s director of research decided to offer introductory online courses on artificial intelligence. An astonishing 160,000 students registered for these classes. Two other courses that were also initiated by Stanford University attracted over 100,000 students for each course. This led to the start up of Udacity, which provides online courses to college students.

However, the fastest growing distance learning initiative is that of Coursera, co-founded last summer by two computer science professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, of Stanford University. The enrolment for Coursera has already crossed two million.

The HEC needs to carefully look at these and other online courses and utilise them fully. We are now seeing a paradigm shift in the manner courses are delivered in colleges and universities. Students have growing access to excellently recorded courses and they come prepared to the lectures with the classroom witnessing more of a discussion session between the teacher and the students, so that the students can clarify concepts and discuss anything that they may not have understood in the online course. Pakistan must not be left behind in this fast-evolving technologically-driven scenario.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (36)

  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Jan 24, 2013 - 11:34PM

    God bless you on your services for this nation.


  • Mir Hassan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 1:05AM

    As Thomas Friedman in NYT said about the MOOCs … ” here come the revoultion ” … The OCW ,Coursera , Udacity and edX (you forgot to mention ) are massive and brilliant . Apart from these there are non interactive courses available from UC Berkely , Stanford , Yale too and mark my works in the next five to ten years , the third world universities are going to be eclipsed because the material offered there is just awesome . A single lecture is better than a whole semester in Pakistan . I am saving this because of my involvment with these courses for the past 4-5 years and my experience of an engineering education from one of the best Pakistani universities . These are just too brillinat but seems like there isn’t much awareness amongst the Pakistani students and teachers . It is high time we need to adopt to these changes .


  • Lubna
    Jan 25, 2013 - 1:19AM

    @Ch. Allah Daad: Mr. Ata-ur-Rehman should keep in mind that Pakistan is a developing country with bigger problems such as corruption and lack of security than pouring millions of dollars in western economies or pockets of his cronies in the name of Higher Education Industries.


  • Arjun
    Jan 25, 2013 - 2:29AM

    A satellite was placed in space (Paksat 1)

    Placed in space? LOL…


  • Abid P. Khan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 3:49AM

    I never thought I would be saying this to any one. I am afraid you have cocooned yourself, ignore seeing the stark realities of life. In a country where vast majority of people visit open fields to relieve themselves and use thumb prints as their signature, you talk of Stanford and MIT’s usage of state of the art, gadgetry as means of communication.

    It is outright crime to waste millions of dollars to for a handful persons’ research for a doctorate. For the same money you could educate thousands upon thousands of young kids upto the primary school level.

    The Egyptian Pharaohs, with all their wealth and uncountable number of slaves had to start building the base first to erect the pyramids. But you have started from the top. You are helping create an elite class, while giving a flying fig to milling hordes of people who can’t even count.

    Perhaps you will wake up some night all sweaty, realising that instead of spreading light you have only added to the darkness.

    The middle class is not a harbinger of change but perpetrator of status quo. We are simply wasting time and money.


  • sabi
    Jan 25, 2013 - 5:20AM

    Milk man is still mixing water in milk,masson still working in primitive envoirnments.carpanter unaware of principle of his work,painter,mechanics.plumbers,electricians all have not seen any change in quality of their lives.There are more docters and engineers and lawyers than we need but there are far far less qualified handworkers without them there can not be qualitative change in living standards.Any thing better for these poor class Sir?.


  • Jan 25, 2013 - 5:32AM

    Dr Ata-ur-Rehman, you have done a great job. You have played your role to help Pakistan progress. As Pakistan is a developing country, it means that Pakistan is in desperate need of science and technology — and more people like Dr Ata-ur-Rehman. Pakistan does not need guns but books. Pakistan needs scholars more than Pakistan needs fighters. Higher Education is doing an excellent job in disseminating the worth of science and technology in the next generation of Pakistanis. Keep on doing good work and don’t be discouraged by any criticism.


  • Sajid
    Jan 25, 2013 - 6:28AM

    A digital library was established that provided free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks and monographs from 220 international publishers to our university students. Such a facility is not available for free nationwide even in the US, Europe and Japan.

    False. Most universities in US at least have very state of the art libraries which offer way more than any library I have seen in Pakistan, including the ones Dr. is boasting about.


  • Asim
    Jan 25, 2013 - 7:22AM

    @Abid P. Khan:
    MAn you are talking ignorance. Go School please at least.
    In USA not whole USA doing research but only hand full persons are making USA the super nation. You may be surprised 43% people of the USA dont know the differnce in proton and electron.
    Pak will be asian tiger if we have just ten world class universities as level of Chicago university or Celtec.
    You dont need whole Pak as Phd researcher.


  • Jan 25, 2013 - 8:17AM

    the article is written for the sole purpose of self praising. though author did good job in higher education sector he was entrusted to. if education in primary and secondary level did not receive attention Mr. Rahman does not deserve to be blamed as that was the job of somebody else..
    But i have started to feel that the author wrote this article more for the purpose of self praising only (after his removal from HEC )


  • bbball
    Jan 25, 2013 - 8:32AM

    Yes, distance learning is a good initiative. Now this is something that is low or no cost and yielding results as opposed to sending a handful of persons abroad on the govt’s expense. The education landscape is going to change significantly over the next decade – there are some predictions that on-site universities, as there are today, could even vanish over time. Coursera has already attracted decent venture capital interest and they are quickly figuring out how to monotize this. Here is interesting perspective.


  • Maulana Tharra
    Jan 25, 2013 - 12:14PM

    “Elementary my dear Watson” as Holmes would say.
    Technology is fine but we need to get the “elementary” right; i-e firm foundation in child’s primary language. What we produce with this “technology” are efficient consumers of flashy toys.
    Higher abstraction, analysis and problem solving needs a tool called “thought” which appears in one’s primary language.
    I’ll just repeat my old sermon that if a particular language had any magical power then every English speaker would be a Shakespear or Newton and every German speaker would be an Einstein.
    If the child can’t internalize the concepts; all the formulae become meaningless voodoo signs.
    Memorizing English dictionary would not produce a scholar or a visionary.
    Sir Richard F Burton rightly mocked us Orientals’ propensity to parrot some phrases in Persian or Arabic and promot ourselves as scholars.


  • abhi
    Jan 25, 2013 - 12:32PM

    @Abid P. Khan and @sabi
    I think what you are saying is right but you cannot ignore the economic benefits of having good high end research environment in a country. both primary education and higher education are important. If primary education is neglected that doesn’t mean that higher education too should be neglected.


  • pak patriot
    Jan 25, 2013 - 1:26PM

    All lectures are available in youtube. And our Govt has imposed a ridiculous ban on it.


  • Riaz Khan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 2:32PM

    Dr. Sahib, You truly are one of the hero’s of Pakistan! I salute you and feel sad for those who are criticizing you since they are truly very ignoranr about the importance of quality education. Dumb & not highly educated will deliver inferior education as compared to those who are highly educated. God bless you Dr. Sahib!


  • Imran
    Jan 25, 2013 - 3:02PM

    Dr. Attaurehman is an authority on Higher Education, not a NAB chairman. He can only advise university courses, not end corruption. If you are waiting for corruption, nepotism etc. to end before taking up education then GOOD LUCK!


  • qwasi moto
    Jan 25, 2013 - 3:19PM

    @Abid P. Khan
    Billions have gone into Elementary education. The result… negligible increase in literacy or education in rural areas, more ghost schools, school buildings turned into godowns and autaqs of the influential feudals and the misuse goes on. Even the British council which began funding the elementary education in a big way 10 years ago, wriggled itself out of it and turned to higher education. When you begin to think out of the box, not all projects begin from base upwards. Many things have to be manged beginning from the top.


  • Engr.Sardar Khan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 4:10PM

    The Talent is present in our nation.Education is important piller to build the nation.There is no Educational reforms in our Country Pakistan.The higher Eduaction at Government and Private Institution are very expencive.The Parents having normal financial status are worried about their Kids for their Higher Education like medical and Engineering.Most of Private Educatinal Institution have obtained precisious lands from Government on NGO or Foundation basis,They donot pay Tax and they are running their institution on commercial basis.These are profitable industries.The Education ministries at Federal and Provincial levels are not effective to play and active role.
    I invite all the peolpe of our nation to discuss this important issue and to play a role for Educational reforms in our Pakistan.


  • HMCheema
    Jan 25, 2013 - 6:54PM

    There is another Massive-Open-Online-Course (MOOC) based initiative rapidly expanding. It is called edX ( and the consortium has some top universities offering courses. I think we need to replicate this concept in Pakistan by getting courses from the top 4-5 universities online for the 85-90% youth unable to get into good universities.


  • Abid P. Khan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 6:56PM

    “@Abid P. Khan and @sabi
    I think what you are saying is right but you cannot ignore the economic benefits of having good high end research….”

    I am not advocating abandoning of genuine research at the highest level. It is a matter channeling the meager resources (one of the lowest budget allocation in the world) and of timing. Right now the country has difficulties in servicing the burden of international loans. We simple cannot afford the luxury building castle in the air like Sheikh Chilli—in normal speak it would be called madness.
    We are in the process of creating a fighting force composed of generals only with fancy medals hanging from their breasts but no soldiers in sight.
    Poor educational level cannot be improved unless the basic schooling is bettered. A weak foundation is being laid. While those used to making holes in national exchequer keep advocating that foundation is not needed but will take shape by itself. It is just not due to utter ignorance but purblindness itself which keeps pulling us down.


  • Ammar
    Jan 25, 2013 - 7:26PM

    @Maulana Tharra: Holmes never said that.


  • Alif Khan
    Jan 25, 2013 - 8:40PM

    I think it is very important to mention in this perspective and learning of MATH and science. Khan Acadamy is giving complete solution from basic to most higher level of education in MATH and calculus which is bases of today computer technology.


  • Punjab university
    Jan 25, 2013 - 9:11PM

    What is the difference between MIT and Punjab university. It is the only difference of Faculity.
    MIT has 60 nobel Laureates while PU dont have any single world level scientist even. Funding of the institution matter to some extent. Like I can give you example, e.g…. Saudi Arabia and Qatar builds and invested billions dollar for new grandoise university buildings. But they are not at any level to any USA uni. The reason is the difference of faculity.

    Even Pak can change its framing based economy into Hi-tec ecnomoy. If we provide these existing 100 Pak universities with Best faculty. Unfortunately in Pak we have not available any good phd graduates. we have just below average Phd graduates in Pak.

    The thing which I notice in Pak actually we dont have research environment. Even there is huge Corruption in academias or university. This is not corruption in terms of monetry benefits but in duty to carry standard research.

    When Abdus Salam(only nobel Laureate) returned Pak after completing his PHD from Cambridge university. He join the Punjab university or GCU lahore. After Few months he siad”” Either I WILL LEAVE THE PHYICS OR PAKISTAN””. In anguish he left the Pak as these institution completely fail to provide any better research environment.


  • Asad Malik
    Jan 26, 2013 - 12:22AM

    @Lubna: Are you even remotely aware of the situation? Your naivety is highly impressive. Corruption being a bigger issue than education? If we do not have an educated population, no matter how honest our government is, we will never be able to prosper. I fail to see your point other than flaming a person who has done more for this country than you ever can.


  • saf
    Jan 26, 2013 - 12:47AM

    we only think about higher higher and highher education.and not about of these poor students who studies in villages by their rude teachers who only teach them by only RATTA method.


  • gp65
    Jan 26, 2013 - 3:15AM

    @Abid P. Khan: Sir the distance learning courses Dr. Rahman is talking about are free for anyone with PC/laptop and internet connection. They thus do not subtract from any primary education budget. Are you saying that the government should not facilitate access to free resources for top class higher education made possible due to the vision of foreign universities like MIT and Stanford just because the situation at the primary level is poor?


  • Salman
    Jan 26, 2013 - 7:04AM

    I have a simple quote for the people who are criticizing: “THEY DONT EVEN KNOW WHAT THEY DONT KNOW”


  • White Russian
    Jan 26, 2013 - 9:30AM

    Now that is something from great Prof Attaur Rahman which I consider his greatest contribution: providing IT facilities to all Pakistanis during his time as minister. I am not really a fan of him when it comes to HEC, but buliding the IT infrastructure i aomething no one can deny.


  • Khurram Sher
    Jan 26, 2013 - 9:45AM

    I would like to know which universities in Pakistan offer distance learning.
    CASE (Centre for Advanced Studies in Engineering) associated with UET Taxila has discontinued its only distance learning programme that I knew about.
    If there is any other university which offers a distance learning programme in engineering?
    Not any more I guess..


  • Younas
    Jan 26, 2013 - 1:16PM

    Dr Sahib it’s good to praise yourself but don’t forget Musharraf who helped you with loads of funds in carrying out all those projects.


  • A.U
    Jan 26, 2013 - 3:30PM

    writer has written a very impressive and comprehensive article throwing blue light on the importance of distance learning,, well, pretty Good. i would like to ask the readers of E.T what what would they say about the virtual university Which also provides distance learning programs, the reason i am asking to them is an ad had appeared in most widely read Urdu daily in which it was written that VU graduates could not apply for certain post,,, actually i wanna study in virtual uni, and their views about AIOU.,, help me by your comments plz,,,, what does the status vu enjoy??
    secondly, i think writer should have told a little bit about fee dues, and criteria about uni mentioned by him,


  • Abid P. Khan
    Jan 26, 2013 - 5:29PM

    “…Are you saying that the government should not facilitate access to free resources for top class higher education made possible due to the vision of foreign universities like MIT and Stanford just because the situation at the primary level is poor?”

    No, ma’m no. I am not disputing the knowledge emanating policies the Ivy League institute bunch. It is the tunnel vision of the people at the receiving end who due their inflated egos are only adding to the ever increasing gap between the haves and have nots, by diverting the funds from where they are acutely needed.


  • bbball
    Jan 26, 2013 - 9:30PM

    Coursera etc will not remain free once they figure out how to monetize their offerings – see the recent NYtimes article. Any learning that’s free or cheap is good – now take the next step and convert that input of knowledge into output so that the country can benefit. Otherwise, graves have little use for long strored knowledge that was never retreived..


  • PC
    Jan 27, 2013 - 8:27PM

    Good point


  • Afzal
    Jan 28, 2013 - 11:06PM

    In Asia the new emerging science center will be Iran. Even Iranian science is quite ahead than to Pak science contribution in world knowledge. Our Leader can see the Iranian science efforts by this article,,,

    Read more:–returned-intact.html#ixzz2JIGw4eEr
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook


  • Mar 22, 2013 - 7:05AM

    God bless all.


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