THE REAL wealth of Pakistan lies in its youth. About 90 million people or roughly half the population is below the age of 18. This is a unique advantage as it offers a window of opportunity for progress. If we can re-prioritise our national development vision and programmes, we can unleash the huge creative potential that exists and marches towards building a strong knowledge economy.

We need to train manpower and establish high value-added industries ranging from electronics to engineering goods, from pharmaceuticals to automobiles and from ship-building to new and intelligent materials. For this to happen, we need to invest in our schools, colleges and universities so that we can adequately prepare our young for the world of today and tomorrow – a world where truth has become stranger than fiction.

It is possible today to produce millions of plants in a small hall by using tissue culture technology. New types of intelligent bullets have been designed that can go around corners and shoot down enemies hiding behind walls. New materials – metamaterials – have been developed that can bend light around them, thereby making objects invisible. A fascinating experiment is under way in the south of France to produce energy by fusion of two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium). The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is expected to cost about $20 billion and is designed to produce 500MW of energy from the input of 50MW. It is expected to be completed by 2020 and if successful, could change the way we produce electricity

Many countries are investing massively in universities and research centres so that they are not left behind in the new world of tomorrow where innovations will drive economies and natural resources such as oil and minerals will be of little importance. Pakistan needs to urgently change its policies so that it can embark on a long-term process for building a knowledge economy. One key initiative is the establishment of a network of world-class engineering universities. It was decided in 2006 to establish nine world-class universities in partnership with a consortia of top universities in Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Austria, China, South Korea, the Netherlands and America. Four of these projects – with universities in Germany, Italy, Austria and China – were approved by ECNEC in February 2008. These universities of engineering, science and technology would have offered BS/MS/PhD degrees of the foreign universities to students for courses attended in Pakistan. This would have allowed Pakistani students to obtain world-class foreign education without going to foreign countries. However, in May of that year, the new government froze the programme. Provinces had already allocated land for these universities and it would be a great national tragedy if the programme were permanently abandoned. In the case of the Pakistan-China University, even the rector and senior Chinese faculty members had been recruited. A very important aspect of this programme is the establishment of technology parks in each university in which foreign companies would set up research and development centres for new product development.

At present, Pakistan does not have a single international research and development (RandD) centre and is, therefore, completely dependent on the West for new technologies. Meanwhile, China and India have hundreds of RandD centres established by major international companies. Foreign universities agreed to bring top companies to Pakistan to establish RandD centres in cutting-edge fields, thereby providing a unique opportunity to the country to transition from its largely agriculture-based economy to one based on knowledge. The success of these new universities would, therefore, not be measured just from PhD outputs or their research publications but from the inflow of funds resulting from royalties from the sale of international patents based on the RandD efforts of their technology parks.

Contrary to the public perception, the cost of the universities is not very high. The salaries of foreign faculty members make up only seven per cent of the total cost of each project. Construction and equipment costs are strictly in accordance with the rates approved by the Planning Commission for other such projects. If completed, they would also save us much foreign exchange as it is estimated that about Rs80 billion are spent every year by Pakistani parents to send their children abroad in order to obtain quality higher education.

The writer is a former Federal Minister for Science and Technology and served as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission from 2002-08

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