Our educational system is in a bad shape – or rather, in a very bad shape. In world rankings, none of our universities or institutions falls within even the first 500 schools that students should consider attending. As a matter of fact, Comsats – which has the highest ranking – is listed in the 601st position.
We can’t put the blame for this miserable state of affairs on successive governments. Vice-chancellors, principals, rectors and professors are all equally responsible. They show little interest in improving the situation while public sector officials are least concerned about the state of affairs. Most of them don’t come to university on time and seldom give the students the guidance they are supposed to give and which students require and deserve. They are safe in their positions and nobody can touch them or terminate their services.
The overall result is that our students are neither competent nor do they have adequate knowledge to handle and solve problems. They simply rote learn and lack the ability to apply what they know to practical situations. This problem is not so conspicuous here as ‘sub kam chalta hai’ is the norm. The real discrepancy becomes apparent when our students go abroad for higher education and find themselves totally clueless in their new environment. They have not been trained to handle/use scientific apparatus/instruments and therefore lack self-confidence. They have managed to get their degrees thanks to sympathetic professors, assistants and technicians in Pakistan. Unfortunately, professors who have gone through these postgraduate problems while studying abroad themselves don’t prepare their students at all for the challenges of higher studies.
When our MS or MPhil students go abroad, their lack of training or expertise in handling equipment as compared to other students is immediately apparent. Most students who study abroad handle equipment quite early on in their undergraduate studies and develop confidence by the time they reach the postgraduate level.
I saw this in Germany, Holland and Belgium. Since I started my studies there at the undergraduate level, I went through the whole exercise and never felt that I was inadequate at handling various instruments. After receiving a good training at the famous Technical University in Berlin for about two years, I moved to the Technological University of Delft, Holland – which is considered to be the MIT of Europe at the time. After obtaining an MS, I worked as a research assistant to Professor WG Burgers (my supervisor) before being offered a scholarship from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium – which is now ranked as number one in Europe.
Owing to my solid undergraduate background, I never had to ask local students for assistance and was able to publish many scientific papers in American, British, German and Japanese professional journals. While in Leuven, I wrote an extensive article in a British journal on metallurgical engineering education at Delft, Holland. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter of appreciation from Professor Walter Owen, the then head of the metallurgy department at MIT. He had found my article interesting and informative. Dr Owen appreciated my PhD work and asked for copies of my scientific papers.
The lack of training provided to students at the undergraduate level in Pakistan reminds me of something Professor Otto Frisch, a nephew of Professor Dr Lise Meitner (both Frisch and Meitner discovered nuclear fission), wrote in his book ‘What Little I Remember’. He wrote about an incident that occurred just after World War I when he was travelling from Berlin to Moscow by train to attend a conference. There was a well-dressed Indian gentleman sitting in the compartment.
After some time, the Indian gentleman – who was Homi J Bhabha, the first chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission – took out a Geiger counter (a device used to count neutrons) from his briefcase and asked Otto Frisch to teach him how to use it. Frisch showed him but was surprised at Bhabha’s lack of knowledge – he had a PhD from Cambridge. Meanwhile, my very first experiment at Berlin at the undergraduate level was about the characteristics of a Geiger counter. Nowadays, Indian students are well equipped to handle Ph.D. studies abroad. Their institutes of technology also have a good reputation.
The daughter of my friend from Lahore received an offer from the Erasmus Mundus Programme for a PhD in Sustainable Industrial Chemistry to study in Italy and France. Until she did her MS, she did not have the opportunity to handle any equipment independently. Since I knew that she would have to work with various instruments for her PhD degree, I made a special request to the then PCSIR Laboratories Complex DG Dr Shahzad Alam to allow her to work there for two months to learn how to operate the various pieces of equipment. He accepted my request.
Dr Alam is now the chairman of PCSIR and has his office at the head office in Islamabad. He has a PhD from Japan and is a competent and knowledgeable scientist. Those two months of training proved to be extremely useful to my friend’s daughter and she is now halfway through her PhD in France without facing any insurmountable problems.
I would strongly recommend that students who plan to go abroad should make every effort to learn to handle the equipment that they will be expected to use. After selecting universities that teach the subjects of their choice, they should get in touch with the relevant professors. Nowadays, all information on courses, professors and scholarships are available on the internet. They will also need to get their certificates attested by the school boards, the HEC and the Foreign Office – which can be a lengthy process. Not to forget passports and visas. Never ever give provide any false information. If you know anyone already studying abroad, get tips from them. Remember, PhD degrees are not handed on a platter; they require hard work and perseverance.
My own studies and work experience in Europe helped me forge many long-lasting relationships with colleagues and industrialists, not to mention the invaluable experiences I gained both professionally as well as culturally. It is a mind-broadening experience that every student going abroad should make the most of.