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Higher Education: Past, Present and Future

by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman

Pakistan is grouped in the technologically marginalized and innovation deficient countries in the global rankings. Unless laboratory level research is translated into marketable products, a knowledge economy can’t be promoted.

There are four pillars of progress in knowledge economy; high quality education, science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship and a governance system that allows merit to prevail and offers quick and fair justice.

In order to build a strong knowledge economy, Pakistan needs to rid itself of the constraints of a natural resource-driven approach to socio-economic development and focus on strengthening the “triple helix” of the knowledge economy.

The government should focus policies directed at strengthening the knowledge and research base and enhancing manufacturing and exports of high technology products, two, establishment of world class universities and centers of excellence in key fields and three, promotion of private sector so that strong linkages can be established between industry and agriculture with national research institutions.

In Brief

  • Pakistan needs a continuity of policy, especially when it comes to higher education.
  • The country needs to become a ‘knowledge’ economy.
  • It is important to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. A close cooperation between various government departments, Ministry of Science and Technology, Higher Education Commission (HEC), universities and private sector is the need of the hour.

The real beginning
In 2001, when I was the federal minister of science and technology, the development budget for science was increased by about 6,000 percent. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was abolished in 2002 and it was replaced with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which became a powerful new national body on higher education. It was decided that the new commission would be headed by a person with the status of a federal minister who would directly report to the prime minister.

Later in 2002, when I was made the founding chairman of HEC, I increased the development budget for higher education by some 2,400 percent which allowed the education commission to undertake programs for uplift of higher education. These programs boosted research in universities. They can be broadly categorized as those related to access, quality and research, relevance and governance issues.


There were only 59 universities and degree awarding institutions in Pakistan in the year 2000. As a result of my initiatives, the number grew to 127 institutions by year 2008, to 137 institutions by year 2010 and to 157 institutions by year 2014. Similarly, university enrolment grew threefold, rising from only 276,000 in 2002 to about 900,000 students by 2010 and to 1.3 million by 2014. The access to higher education grew from about 2.3 percent of 17 to 23 age group in the year 2003 to 6.5 percent by the year 2010.

A number of steps were taken to improve the quality of education and to make it more relevant to national needs. The most significant of these was related to the programs to develop a strong faculty. The fact that in the year 2003 more than 75 percent of the faculty members in Pakistani universities did not even have a PhD, pointed to the poor state of affairs at the time. Therefore, about 11,000 scholarships were awarded to the brightest students, out of which, some 5,000 scholarships were to obtain PhD degrees at top universities of the world. The remainder was for local PhD level scholarships as well as for sandwich PhD programs whereby a portion of the time of a locally registered PhD student was to be spent in a leading foreign university.

The education commission started a new contractual system of “tenure track” appointments of faculty members with international review of productivity enforced under which the salaries of the faculty members were raised to several times of those of federal ministers, to attract the brightest students passing out of high school to opt for careers in education and research. New rules were enforced under which a PhD degree became mandatory for academic appointments.

The minimum eligibility criteria for appointments as associate professors and full professors were also made stricter so that only those active in high quality research could go up the promotion ladder. Students returning with PhDs from abroad were given the opportunity of applying for research grants of up to $100,000 one year before their date of return, so that by the time they returned, the peer review process of their research grant application would have been completed and they would be able to settle down with sizeable research funds at their disposal, even if they joined an inadequate university with little facilities.

To strengthen the existing faculty, several new programs with liberal research funding and lucrative salaries were launched to attract qualified Pakistanis working abroad, making them return home. Some 600 such lecturers came to Pakistan under these programs, about half of them permanently and the other half on assignments for one or two terms. Tax rates for all faculty members in public and private universities were reduced from 35 percent to only 5 percent; thereby giving a boost to their take-home pay. The foreign faculty members were clustered in various institutions to create the critical mass necessary for excellence in research to thrive. For instance, about 40 foreign faculty members (mostly non-Pakistanis from Europe) were appointed at the Centre for Mathematics at the Government College University (GCU) in Lahore resulting in the emergence of a good mathematics institution.

All curricula were revised and modernized, in consultation with subject experts and industry in order to increase employment and improve quality. A system of internal and external peer review was introduced in all universities and quality assurance cells set up in every public sector university and their performance monitored by the HEC.

The libraries in universities prior to the year 2002 were in a very poor shape with hardly half a dozen of the latest international journals being subscribed to by any of them.

The improvement in the IT infrastructure led to the establishment of a nation-wide digital library under the auspices of the Pakistan Education Research Network (PERN) with some 25,000 international journals and 60,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers. The International Network for Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), based in Oxford, played an important role in negotiating special deals with various publishers. Nationwide videoconferencing facilities were established in various universities with lectures being delivered interactively from technologically advanced countries on a daily basis.


Due to these initiatives, a sudden surge in university rankings was recorded. During the 55-year period between 1947 to 2002, not a single university could be ranked in the top 400 of the world in international university rankings. By 2008, however, several Pakistani universities achieved this yardstick, with the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) at 273 in the world, UET (Lahore) at 281 and Karachi University (in natural sciences) at 223. Others included Quaid-i-Azam University (Islamabad) and Mehran Engineering University (Hyderabad). The research publications in journals with ISI impact factors went through an amazing increase from only about 500 per year in the year 2000 to 6,250 per year by year 2011, almost equaling those from India, if the output is compared on a per million population basis. They continue to rise by about 20 percent each year. Similarly, the citations in the Science Citation Index increased by 1,000 percent in the same period.

Many programs were undertaken to promote university-industry linkages, including the establishment of Offices of Commercialization and Technology Parks at universities and provision of services of patent lawyers and funding for obtaining international patents.

The sudden grinding halt
The progress of the education commission came to a grinding halt after 2008, when its budget was slashed by 50 percent and over 90 percent of the projects were frozen that almost destroyed the only sector that was showing remarkable progress. In November 2010, the government issued a notification to shred it into tiny pieces in order to protect corrupt parliamentarians because the commission had found 53 of these national leaders with forged degrees while another 250 had degrees that were suspect.

The parliamentarians hatched the evil scheme to divide the commission into pieces, and it was only on my appeal to the Supreme Court that this national disaster was averted. The apex court declared the government notification to shred the HEC into pieces unconstitutional and restored its former status.

The way forward
The advanced countries have 2,500-3,000 scientists and engineers per million population and they form the backbone of their development process. Pakistan has only about 120 scientists and engineers per million. It needs to develop at least 500,000 high quality scientists and engineers over the next 10 years in carefully selected fields.

We need to develop a competitive edge in the changing global scenario. World-class centers of excellence should be created in selected priority fields to make Pakistan internationally competitive. These centers should be tasked with nurturing high quality talent in fields of science and engineering and to establish linkages with industry, agriculture and health so that they are able to tackle major national problems. Centers of excellence should also be established in technology developmentand technology commercialization.

Pakistan spends only about 1.9 percent of its total GDP on education (as opposed to Malaysia’s 30 percent of budget). For a nuclear state like Pakistan it is a shameful reality that we are ranked in the bottom seven countries of the world, at 126 out of 132 countries.

We need to recognize that policies concerning human capital development, science and technology and innovation lead to a rise in GDP per capita, employment generation and poverty alleviation. Such policies need appropriate and sustained investments. They take time to work, however, they will not be helped by frequent changes to objectives or national commitments.


There is a need to develop a corporate culture for scientific institutions so that their output can be utilized. The research and development (R&D) institutions should therefore set up strong commercial units which can develop effective liaison with industry. These units should be properly funded and managed by suitable senior level marketing personnel with enough capital so that they can invest in areas of importance for commercialization and strong marketing initiatives undertaken by the institutions.

Pakistan’s share of total exports in hi-tech products is insignificant. We need to acquire competence in several state-of-the-art technologies, including aerodynamics, thermal imaging, precision manufacturing, computational fluid dynamics, industrial design and testing, encryption, etc. These technologies need to be then commercialized through public-private partnership. The national defense organizations are a repository of considerable skills in instrumentation, control and advanced material handling and extending or converting these skills to civil use could broaden our industrial skill base considerably and help us develop hi-tech industries.

The global trends in manufacturing and exports over the last three decades clearly show a sharp rise in high and medium technology goods and a sharp consistent decline in low technology goods and in natural resources. The big money lies in high technology and countries that have realized this have invested massively in knowledge-based economies, leading to the manufacturing and exports of electronics, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, biotech products, computers, software, automobiles, aircraft, defense equipment, alternative energy products and many other such items requiring highly specialized skills and world-class research centers.

The secret lies in the best R&D, combined with innovation and entrepreneurship. Stunning advances made in the last few decades in the fields of information technology, biotechnology, material sciences, health sciences, renewable energy and other disciplines are rapidly changing the face of the globe, leading several countries on the path of social and economic development, leaving others behind.

Our knowledge, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship gap with regional competitors is widening. We are grouped in the technologically marginalized, knowledge and innovation deficient countries in the global rankings. Unless laboratory level research is translated into marketable products, a knowledge economy cannot be promoted. A number of steps must be undertaken to make this happen. Firstly, Pakistan must have a clear science, technology and innovation policy at the national level. The national technology policy should ensure that no development project is approved on a turn-key basis, and genuine transfer of technology must be an integral part of all development projects. Secondly, our country must have a strong intellectual property rights regime that must be vigorously enforced and implemented. Thirdly, there should be liberal access to venture capital funding to support and foster new start-up companies based on innovative ideas. Fourthly, private sector R&D should be promoted through a dynamic incentives process.

This will enhance high technology manufacturing exports from Pakistan. There are lessons to be learned from other countries. Singapore has virtually no natural resources but has focused on research and manufacturing of high technology products; which has resulted in astonishing whopping high exports of over $450 billion annually compared to only $30 billion from Pakistan, a country with a population of about 40 times thatof Singapore.

Professor Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman is a former founding chairman HEC, a leading scientist and a scholar in the field of organic chemistry from Pakistan, especially renowned for his research in the various areas relating to natural product chemistry. With over 700 publications in the field of his expertise, he is also credited for reviving the higher education and research practices in Pakistan. In recognition of his contributions in the field of organic chemistry, he has been conferred with four civil awards including Nishan-i-Imtiaz (2002), Hilal-i-Imtiaz (1998), Sitara-i-Imtiaz (1991) and Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (1983). He has won many international awards as well.

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  1. Rana Hamza said:

    Also quality check of education universities is to be done in public sector universities and arranging awareness seminars on research in universities .

  2. Muhammad Imran said:

    After completing their PhD degrees, everybody want to do job abroad than Pakistan safrishi culture

  3. Aziz said:

    Dr. Atta ur rehman, do you have any idea how critical harm you have caused to the basic education institutions by abolishing UGC?
    When UGC was in practice the government sector institutes were not worried about the salaries of their staff, but by abolishing it every institute had to generate its own capital, as a result they increased the fee structure. Now by just providing 11000 scholrships for higher education, how many children will get deprived on grass root level due to high fees structure of universities and colleges now a days? Can you please comment on this issue as well? I don’t understand why people like you look and focus on your personal contributions? You should have proposed a very balanced proposal for elevation of education at all levels. Now just tell these stories to yourself if they please you.

  4. khuram said:

    i raised a query to HEC but after 19 reminders still unable to get the answer from QA department about the status of one university regarding PhD. this is performance of HEC

  5. jalani75 said:

    0 % response rate from HEC and no coordination among HEC and Ministry of education, FPSC, Regional directorates etc.