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Crisis within Crisis-Overhauling of Education & Research Ecosystem of Pakistan

Syed Habib Bokhari

Higher education in Pakistan, like many other countries, is facing number of challenges, and these challenges are haunting Education in general, and Science & Technology in particular. Despite the growing number of PhDs, we are so fragile during the current COVID-19 and onslaught of Floods which yet again exposed our inherent weaknesses i.e., lack of preparedness and relevant education.

The edifice of any Education system, may it be scientific or social, stands on 3 basic pillars: Appropriate manpower (trained relevant experts, competent personnel), Adequate Infrastructure (space, physical environment, equipped laboratories/training tools, library etc.) and Incentives (well defined goals, reward, and punishment).

 It appears that we are the nation who has lacked the most when it comes to justice with third component reasonably due to vulnerable institutional leadership, adhocism, and Lobbies. This is the very reason that economists have related the factors i.e., shortage of such human capital, physical capital and technology or its inefficient use, to stunted economic growth of any country.

There is increasing international recognition that science and technology intensive solutions can certainly enhance the status of low-income countries. The need for our self-reliance has never been felt as strong as today while we are facing serious challenges i.e. devastating floods in 75 years history of Pakistan and prior to that COVID-19, where the climate change and least preparedness has taught us yet again another lesson.

 This has led to further exacerbating the already stressed food security condition and associated conundrum  of malnutrition, in the country where more than 33% children under 5 are underweight, >37% show stunted growth suggesting poor nutritional status in country ( Stunting, (vicious cycle) begins in utero, can be dubbed as another form of massive brain drain as such children do not grow to full physical and mental potential. In addition, we are the second highest growing population after Nigeria with extremely poor sanitation practices (>25 million people practice open defecation-prior to recent Floods), an estimated 53,000 Pakistani children under five die annually from diarrhoea & ~ 22. 8 million children are out of School (5-16 years age-UNICEF). Moreover, the country’s infrastructure is very poor at times of any disasters such as COVID-19, floods, fires, droughts, and other emergencies.

 The effects of climate change and rapid urbanisation threating our food security with huge economic impact & its fallout on already severely stressed population (>40% <USD 1) has yet to be seen. These are some of the harsh realities of nation of >220 million struggling to improve the quality of life and reduce ever increasing economic inequities or gaps between the extremely polarized society.

So, what can be done is a fundamental question haunting educationist, researchers, leadership of institutes/universities and politicians (political will). In this backdrop, getting rid of fear of indecisiveness, better preparedness & future planning will be key to deal with current as well as any unforeseen climate driven disaster(s).

Many nations have systematically devised well thought programs by identifying areas which are heavily reflected by their existing specific technological strengths or other resources they possess and converted them into game changer opportunities for their masses. Our Higher Education growth indicators reflects that the number of Ph.Ds. in recent years in the country rose to >15,000, with the addition of hundreds if not thousands new Ph.D.’s, many are jobless, per year.

However, hardly, anyone is engaged in developing educational goals in particular in the field of sciences & social sciences for the least privileged group i.e., Govt. Schools & Colleges. Less than 0.0001% of GDP is spent to cater the educational needs of Science Labs training and negligible amount spent in the field of technical education.

The major reason for lack in capacity building in solving real-life challenges and hence employability through Education & Research is our failure to attract vibrant youth towards Science & Technology and building effective partnerships.

In this backdrop, VCs conference was organized at Kohsar university Murree-September 29th -October 01, 2022, to integrate such agenda in their Educational Goals and deploy all necessary inherent strengths jointly to address challenges. There can be various areas which require immediate attention including STEM-AH education and unless and until we are convinced that Science & Technology is the way forward, and we are not ready to send our children to opt such disciplines, we are not going to make much difference in producing meaningful knowledge-basis of creation & co-creation.

In Pakistan, existing limited hands-on training facilities at School, College and even at undergraduate levels have failed to prepare the willing brighter workforce to take up Science & Technology as the career of choice. I strongly believe that this is one of the major reasons that we are lagging way behind when it comes down to grow as a knowledge-based economy, as it’s a continuum pipeline which is required to be maintained to keep up the quality supply line for innovations to happen at universities level by the students enrolled in various graduate programs.

Therefore, a complete revamping of not only curriculum, pedagogical approaches as well as exposing youth with the exciting brand of science & technologies will certainly improve the supply chain for producing vibrant and skillful youth to solve our real-life challenges. One of the bottlenecks is the import of different scientific kits, media and reagents and the low-cost indigenous teaching kits/manuals will provide more robust and continuous relevant science learning experience.

For instance, such comprehensive educational package in Science & Technology whether it is biotechnology, physics, chemistry, mathematics for college and undergraduate students which will be the key transforming principle we need to stress on to improve our Higher Education Quality.

                Effective teaching always engages students in practical demonstration of what they are studying. There are some important concepts in each fundamental discipline of science which make the basis of further research in these fields. Students do not have a firm grip on these basic ideas as they have just gone through the theory and do not have any hands-on experience. I propose that this can be achieved by taking following bold initiatives and interventions

1.            Higher Education should precisely invite funding applications to develop products/kits/manuals with the mission of not only teaching science with practical approach, but with exciting case studies for young budding students

2.            Good weightage in evaluation process should be given to such developers as this will open opportunities for innovations in the country.

3.            Custom made tools will enable its users to understand the fundamental concepts of science adequately translating the theoretical knowledge into the hands-on training which can be run in any moderately equipped laboratory.

4.            Organizing training camps/ workshops/summer schools with the help of consortium of best teachers of the disciplines from across universities

5.            Additional dissemination methods will be the organization of seminars and lectures in high schools, especially to promote Science through virtual laboratories/distant learning/mobile laboratories.

                The real role of university in nation building is to provide a platform for knowledge synthesis, innovation & technology, alongwith enriching students with diverse sets of skills. Vice Chancellors conference of Public Universities of Punjab concluded on October 01, 2022 with the formation of various working groups including STEM-AH. The main objective of the conference was identification of universities inherent strengths to develop pipelines and implement plans to work on all current important challenges as well as be ready for any unforeseen future challenges with better preparedness by team up under one Education Umbrella to reap the full socioeconomic benefits of youth

The writer is the VC of Kohsar University Murree

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