Invest in education for better future: Dr. Ayub Alvi

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Dr. Muhammad Ayub Alvi, Dean at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, in an exclusive interview with the Technology Times shares the history of the countrys most reputed computer science education institution and his thoughts regarding promotion of science and technology education in the country

Sir please share with our readers your educational background and about the institution?
I am Ph.D. in electrical engineering; currently working as Dean at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, which is commonly referred to as FAST-NU. I completed my B.E. in electrical engineering from UET Lahore. I received my Masters and PhD degrees from University of Manchester. I was the first employee to join FAST in July 1982. So my association with FAST is of almost 30 years.
FAST (Foundation for Advancement of Science and Technology) was established in 1980 at Lahore. It is the parent body of the University, which received its charter from the federal government in the year 2000. Currently FAST-NU has four campuses located in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar. The fifth campus is under construction in Faisalabad, and classes shall start in September 2012.
The general perception is that higher education has become more of a commercial venture. Do you agree?
If we look at the fees charged by universities in the developed countries, we find them to be quite high; in fact for us they are very high. Yet, hardly anyone would consider them as business entities. In Pakistan, fees charged by private universities are much less compared with what is charged by universities in the developed countries, yet they are still accused of being commercial in nature.
The amount of fee charged by a university should not be considered as the sole criteria to declare it commercial. Hardly anyone would say that MIT is a commercial organization. It is imparting high quality education and its students are willingly paying its high tuition fee. The students pay because they consider that education a good return for their money. The important thing is the value provided for ones money. One of the major reasons behind the growth of private universities in Pakistan is that they are considered to be providing better value for money.
Public sector universities charge much less tuition fees compared with private sector universities. The actual cost incurred by the public and private universities may not be very different. The difference is that in case of public sector universities, bulk of the cost is paid by ordinary tax-payers and only a fraction is charged from the beneficiary the student.
The government and public should appreciate that private universities are doing what is actually the duty of the government. Moreover, they are performing this duty at no cost to the government and with much less headache.
What are the objectives of FAST?
FAST is a charitable organization, which is not owned by any individual, group or an organization. It was established to promote science and technology in Pakistan. Late Justice Syed Akhlaque Hussain founded FAST in 1980 and Syed Agha Hasan Abedi donated his money to create its endowment. Both of them are not alive today, and none of their family members are involved with FAST.
Isnt FAST established by BCCI?
No. Syed Akhlaq Hussain established FAST in 1980. He had a good relationship with the BCCI President Syed Agha Hassan Abedi. The donations came from BCCI in 1980s. After that FAST did not get donation from anyone. FAST decided to develop a center for the promotion of science and technology; especially to develop electronics technology that could be commercialized later by entrepreneurs. Thus in 1983, an Institute of Electronics was established in Lahore. A small team of engineers developed quite a few state-of-the-art products and gadgets. However, in the absence of any expertise in manufacturing and marketing of these products, we soon reached a dead-end. This design and development center was closed in 1988.
In 1985, FAST established an Institute of Computer Science in Karachi with the objective of imparting computer science education at degree level. In the very first admissions, there were 2,000 applicants competing for only 35 seats. The three-year Bachelor of Computer Science program was offered in affiliation with the University of Karachi. After this over-whelming response, it was decided to focus on providing education to the youth. Although the initial focus was on computer science, but now FAST-NU also offers degree programs in allied field such as electrical engineering, business administration, and Mathematics. Last year, we also started offering Civil Engineering program.
How do you see evolution of FAST?
Initially we focused on equipping our students with all the required technical skills. The feedback received from employers of our graduates underlined the importance of imparting soft skills. While the employers found our graduates well equipped with technical skills, they found them lacking in communication and presentation skills. Therefore, we started giving more emphasis on developing soft skills in our students. To move up the ladder in the corporate world, one needs a balance of soft skills and technical expertise. We are constantly striving to improve the personality of our students so that they also become better citizens.
What kind of change do you see in students over the years?
When I was a student, most of my colleagues were interested in getting degrees so that they can get a government job. Nowadays, more and more students are interested in acquiring knowledge so that they can bring about a change in the world around them. Generally, students seem more serious about their studies. The global village is encouraging students to think about entrepreneurship. A few decades back, the graduates did not consider setting up their own businesses. This trend is changing as the government jobs are drying up. They are encouraged by the success stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and dozens of other entrepreneurs.
Are you offering some entrepreneurship courses?
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has advised all universities to offer entrepreneurship courses. Thanks to the internet, students have access to lots of new ideas and knowledge; and importantly they have the urge to do something new and different. They know about the people behind Google and Facebook. How they had started their businesses while studying in the universities. The internet is giving an edge to the students, as they can access tons of information and even seek advice from experts residing anywhere in the world. This has created new avenues of acquiring knowledge for all students and they can use it profitably.
Is there a difference in the abilities of students from different backgrounds?
Pakistan has different types of education system ranging from madrasah schools to research universities. Majority of FAST students come from big cities. However, students coming from rural areas have been found to be hard working than their counter-parts coming from urban areas. Students having rural background face some difficulties initially, but when they adjust to the environment they show better results than their colleagues coming from urban background. Students having urban background have been found to be less serious in studies; however their communication skills are better than those coming from rural areas. Since 2006, the National ICT RandD Fund is granting scholarships to students coming from rural areas. These scholarships have increased from 200 in 2006 to more than 700 in 2011. FAST-NU admitted 200 of these scholars in 2011.
Any message for our readers?
I am a regular reader of Technology Times, and I have found it to be quite informative. I go through your newspaper every week. However, I find the size of the newspaper too large and would like that it should be of smaller size.
To the parents, I would like to say that they should invest in the education of their children. This investment provides much higher returns compared with any other investment avenue.
To the students, I would say that get ready to compete with the best graduates of the world. Do not think locally, think globally.


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