Investing in science and higher education

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Massive investments are presently being made in higher education by many countries in the developing world, such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and China. 

This is because it has slowly been realised by the ministries of finance and planning in these countries that quality higher education and its links with industries represent a critically important path to developing a strong knowledge-based economy.

Singapore began to invest massively in education and science due to the visionary policies of the former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. As a result, the per capita income of Singapore is today greater than that of United Kingdom’s and other European countries. The National University of Singapore, ranked among the top 30 universities in the world, has a huge annual budget of around Rs400 billion, significantly higher than the average government grant to our public sector universities. Similarly, the annual budget of the University of Malaya alone is about Rs50 billion annually.

After over a decade of neglect, a remarkable change is now underway in the landscape of science and technology. This is due to the efforts of the Knowledge Economy Task Force which is chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan; I am the vice chairman of the task force. A large number of carefully selected projects have been launched in the emerging areas of technology including advanced agriculture, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, microelectronics, nanotechnology, new materials, regenerative medicine, etc. As a result of these projects that cost around Rs67 billion, the development budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology has been increased by 600% over the last two years.

A shining example of this wonderful initiative is the Pak-Austria University of Applied Science and Engineering (Pak-Austria Fachhochschule) that has been set up in Haripur, Hazara in the remarkable record time of about 2.5 years. Funded by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government through my initiative and full support of the prime minister, it represents the first university in the world where dual degrees will eventually be given to talented students by no less than eight foreign engineering universities, three from Austria and five from China, thereby assuring that it conforms to the highest international standards. 

It is also the first hybrid university in the world to have three independent tracks. The first track is that of technology education at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels in close cooperation with the two leading Fachhochschule in Austria.

The second track is that of strong postgraduate research programmes, leading to PhD degrees and postdoctoral research in collaboration with five Chinese and one Austrian universities in new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, high speed railways engineering, advanced agriculture, microelectronics, etc. The third and the most important track is focused on the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship with a dynamic technology park, innovation fund and major programmes for the development of industrial products.

The challenge that has been given to the rector, Prof Mohammed Mujahid, is to ensure that the university produces at least a few novel products that are commercialised each year, so that the university becomes a leader in the region in the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship and is not involved in just conventional teaching and basic research.

Following the inauguration of this wonderful university in Haripur by the prime minister last year, we have now begun work on setting up two other such universities in the land behind the PM House, in Islamabad and in Samrial, in Sialkot. Similar collaborations have been made with a few universities in China, Austria and the UK, and some MoUs are expected to be signed later this month.

The reforms that I initiated as the federal minister of science and technology under the Musharraf regime and as the first chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) have had a major transformational impact on the quality of higher education and research. In 2000, Pakistan was 400 percent behind India in terms of per capita research output. To change this situation, about 11,000 of our brightest students were sent abroad for PhD and postdoctoral training to the world’s leading universities. Once they returned, they were offered good salary packages and liberal research funding. As a result, according to Web of Science data, Pakistan remarkably overtook India in 2018 in per capita research output. This is no small achievement considering that India had made huge investments in higher education during the Nehru regime and established excellent education institutions including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). The programmes launched by us to uplift higher education have been applauded by UN agencies as well as by the World Bank, USAID, and other international agencies and experts.

HEC operational budgets for universities had been frozen for the last four years at about Rs65 billion annually. In three separate presentations, I brought this serious issue to the attention of the prime minister and the finance minister. I am pleased to state that my request was accepted and an additional sum of Rs15 billion was announced by the finance minister in his budget speech, providing much needed relief to universities.

A contractual system of faculty appointments with regular international evaluations was introduced by us when I was the HEC chairman, in 2003. This system had deteriorated over the years. I urged the government to revive it, and after bringing this issue before the prime minister, its budget has also been increased by a minimum of 35% and a maximum of 100%. This will serve to attract young people to take up careers in education and research as well as attract the brightest academics of Pakistani origin settled abroad to return to Pakistan and contribute to the development of the higher education system in the country.

Another project that our task force initiated involved bringing in greater efficiency and transparency in the tax collection system. Using NADRA’s (limited) transaction records with innovative artificial intelligence (AI) protocols, our model identified 3.8 million non-filers – each with a tax liability of more than Rs100,000 – who should have paid an estimated Rs1.6 trillion in income taxes in the fiscal year 2017. As a result, the total declared assets moved sharply up to Rs 3 trillion and the actual taxes paid to Rs65 billion. More than 90,000 non-filers became filers and the total tax returns for the year ending 30 June 2018 crossed two million. This is now being further expanded.

A silent revolution is taking place through national projects promoted by the Knowledge Economy Task Force to help Pakistan transition to a strong knowledge-based economy. It needs to be sustained over the next decades so that we can reap the fruit of the seeds being sown today.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

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