Quality and innovation – Dr Atta-Ur-Rahman

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Recently a brainstorming session was held in the Ministry of Science & Technology to consider the draft of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy.

The efforts of the Ministry of Science & Technology to introduce a new policy need to be applauded. Innovation is essential not only for industrial growth but for the survival of our nation. Therefore, public policy must focus on creating demand for innovation and indigenous technology capability building. Our efforts are often supply driven, rather than being demand driven, which leads to failure.

The three major players in the promotion of innovation and the development of a knowledge economy are universities, industry and enabling government policies. All three players thrive on the extent of merit-based competitiveness that needs to be in-built into the systems and on the efficiency of interaction among all these three key players. The development of a knowledge economy requires a thorough understanding of the dynamic interplay between research, invention, innovation, and economic growth.

An important question raised in the brainstorming session was why our education system is not producing thinkers and innovators. There are several facets to this problem. First, our school system has gone from bad to worse over the last several decades. Massive cheating is a norm, more in board exams in Sindh and also in other provinces. There is a huge drop-out rate with about 20 million out-of-school children. The quality of teachers is very poor in government schools and so the wrong mindset is being created during the 12 years of schooling. Students who enter colleges have thus been brainwashed into accepting mediocrity. Rote learning has become a habit and moral values have eroded. College education again is a disaster, as there are hardly any facilities and so the erosion continues.

The 10-12 years of poor school and college level education can hardly be compensated by 2-4 years of university level education. So, if we need to improve the quality of the output of students from our universities, and promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, we must do so by bringing about major changes in our entire educational system at school, college and university levels. Mere tinkering will not work. To tackle these challenges, I have presented a comprehensive plan involving declaration of a National Education Emergency.

When I took over as chairman HEC, our primary focus was on quality of higher education, rather than churning out large numbers of incompetent students, ill prepared for the market needs. All curricula were therefore revised and updated in consultation with relevant stakeholders in industry, agriculture, medicine, and academia. The revised curricula introduced were geared to meet the demands of the international and local market. New books were introduced, and a digital library established under the Pakistan Educational Research Network (PERN) that provided free access to 65,000 text books and 25,000 international journals. A culture of quality research was introduced by training a large number of our brightest students at the world’s leading universities and attracting them back to Pakistan through vastly improved salaries under a new Tenure Track Salary structure, jobs on arrival, liberal research funding and access to sophisticated instrumentation.

While research was encouraged in universities through massive research grants, establishment of central instrumentation laboratories and establishment of Quality Assurance units in all universities, some of the specific measures taken to improve quality were that all PhD theses were evaluated only by eminent foreign scientists. All PhD thesis and research papers were checked for plagiarism by introducing a powerful software (iThenticate or Turnitin) which brought a complete halt to the menace of plagiarism. Punitive action was initiated by the HEC when this was detected.

Some 11,000 students were sent abroad to leading universities for PhD level training and they were absorbed as faculty members on their return, leading to a huge improvement in educational standards and increase in research publications. The criteria for appointments and promotions at faculty positions were toughened and linked to international stature of the applicants as judged from their international publications, patents and citations. Quality Enhancement Cells were established in all universities for the first time in the history of the country.

Criteria for minimum requirements of faculty, facilities and infra-structure for establishments of new universities were approved by the cabinet and enforced before giving charters to new universities. The mushrooming of substandard universities and university campuses was stopped.

The results of these measures were astounding. We had never had a single Pakistani university in the top 500 of the world during 1947-2002, according to the Times Higher Education (UK) rankings. By 2008, within a short six-year period, we had several universities ranked in the top 300-500 of the world, and numerous reports were written by neutral international experts calling 2002-2008 “the Golden Period” for higher education in Pakistan. This was made possible by the tremendous support to the higher education and science sectors from president Musharraf and the hard work of my colleagues at the HEC.

The emphasis of quality education and research was applauded internationally as well. In an analysis of scientific research productivity of Pakistan, in comparison to Brazil, Russia, India and China, Thomson Reuters acknowledged that Pakistan had emerged as the country with the highest increase in the percentage of highly cited papers in comparison to the BRIC countries.

Unfortunately, the governments that followed the Musharraf government drastically slashed higher education budgets and even tried to destroy the HEC by fragmenting it into pieces, a move that was blocked by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on my petition. A revival has at last now begun but much damage has been done, particularly after 2018 due to misguided HEC policies with the mushrooming of 35 new universities and campuses in the last three years without availability of funds or faculty, and the numbers of students sent abroad for PhD level training. As a result, quality has nose-dived.

It is time to start again and rebuild. Our future lies in unleashing the creative potential of our children.

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

Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com