Foreign varsities in Pakistan | Dr Atta ur Rehman


During the last two years, I have travelled to Austria, Italy and France to explore the possibility of establishing top class engineering and technology universities in Pakistan. These journeys were to convince the leading varsities in these countries to form consortia of their best universities which could then set up top class educational institutions in Pakistan.

We spend over Rs100 billion every year to send our children abroad for good foreign education. Why can’t all this money be saved if we can educate our children at foreign universities in our own country? After all schoolchildren prepare for and take their O level and A level examinations from the University of Cambridge without physically travelling to the varsity in the UK. The same can be done at the university level.

An important step to strengthen engineering education and research in Pakistan was taken in 2004 when I was chairman of the Higher Education Commission. It was decided to establish a network of several world class foreign engineering universities in Pakistan. The model chosen was visionary and unique. It involved partnerships with consortia of top universities (rather than with any single foreign university) so that good quality foreign faculty could become available in sufficient numbers in Pakistan.

Thus nine top German engineering universities formed a strong consortium to establish a world class engineering university in Lahore and similar consortia were formed with top universities in France, Italy, Austria, China and Sweden. The president of Pakistan laid the foundations of the Austrian university in Lahore while the prime minister of Pakistan laid the foundation stone of the Pakistan-French University. German, Austrian, Italian and Chinese classes were planned to commence in October 2008.

The Walden Airport in Lahore was refurbished as a temporary campus for German and Austrian universities while similar temporary arrangements were made for French and Italian universities in Karachi and for Chinese and Swedish engineering universities in Islamabad and Sialkot. A technology park was to be set up at the heart of each university so that every varsity would not only produce highly qualified and trained engineers but also entrepreneurs who would form their own start-up companies. The projects for four of these universities in collaboration with Germany, Italy, Austria and China were approved by ECNEC in February, 2008 but then disaster struck.

On May 19, 2008, just three months after ECNEC had granted approval to the projects, the new government abandoned the programme completely. Years of hard work were thrown in the dustbin, much to the annoyance of 30 foreign universities who had agreed to start classes in Pakistan in spite of the security risk involved (the country was facing regular terrorist attacks at the time). Pakistan lost all credibility as a nation in their eyes.

However, I did not give up. In 2015, I approached Imran Khan with the idea and he immediately agreed to set up an Austrian university in Haripur and Hazara. The university is being funded by KP government and four of the best universities of Applied Science and Technology (‘Fachhochschule’) have agreed to form a consortium and give their degrees in Pakistan.

After that, I approached CM Shahbaz Sharif and he too agreed to set up an engineering university in the Lahore Knowledge Park. A consortium of the top Italian engineering universities has been formed and classes are expected to start in 2018 provided that a dynamic CEO can be appointed without wasting more time in the Lahore Knowledge Park. If this does not happen in a timely manner, the programmes will need to be postponed till 2019.

I have also approached the chief minister of Sindh who has a distinguished engineering background – having been trained in Stanford – but his decision to set up a foreign engineering university in his province is still awaited. Discussions with French, Chinese and Swedish institutions for the establishment of similar foreign engineering universities in other major cities of Pakistan are also under way.

These universities will focus on the following fields: industrial process engineering, energy, new materials, agricultural engineering/biotechnology, material sciences/nanotechnology, artificial intelligence/ robotics, big date, genomics and other fast emerging areas. There are opportunities opening up in many fields. For instance, biotechnology is changing the face of agriculture and medicine these days. Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg had once stated: “In view of the current power of biotechnology and its even brighter future, there is no question that the less developed countries must now position and strengthen their status in biotechnology…” .

When I was the federal minister of science and technology in 2001, we had established two powerful commissions under the umbrella of the ministry of science and technology. One was the National Commission of Biotechnology that started a large number of programmes of over a billion rupees and just when it was beginning to lay the foundations of a solid programme in biotechnology in Pakistan, the subsequent government closed it down.

The other was the National Commission of Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is a fast emerging field which is impacting a large number of industries in different fields of electronics, computer sciences, engineering, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, transportation and others. This too was closed down.

Pakistan has a very low level of development and a per capita income – about 40 times less than that of an average citizen in Singapore – because of our faulty national vision. We have failed to realise that natural resources are now of little importance. In order to progress, we need to focus on developing high-quality human resources so that we can manufacture and export high technology goods that have higher value and can lift the country out of poverty. This is what Singapore did which is why the National University of Singapore is ranked 12th in the world and first in Asia under the QS rankings today.

This is also what Korea did. The establishment of a network of top class universities of science, including Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), Korean Applied Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Soul National University and many others, paved the way for a major industrial revolution in Korea. The country then became a world leader in many fields.

The road is therefore clear, but we have failed to follow it. Instead of just building roads between cities, we should have carved out programmes to manufacture ships, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, electronics, specialised alloys, rare minerals, sophisticated software and other such goods and services. This is only possible if we develop top class universities and centres of excellence and link the research in these institutions to industry and agriculture. With the establishment of new foreign engineering universities, there is now light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology &
Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: