Prof. Dr Arshad Ali, Principal, SEECS, is a prolific researcher and academician. He has over 100 publications to his credit. He has been conferred Gold Medal by Pakistan Academy of Sciences and COMSTECH for IT research, Presidents Gold Medal for Best NUST Researcher of the Year 2005 and Distinguished Scientist of the Year 2006″ Award by PAS. Dr Arshad is also recipient of Presidents Pride of Performance in IT research. During his talk with Technology Times, he shared his views about the future of science teaching in Pakistan
Are you satisfied with the standard of science teaching in Pakistan?
It is very important for teaching science subjects that the teachers themselves are clear about their concepts. It is a long process and requires hard work. In my personal view the steps taken by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) are extremely important and have starting creating a positive difference. Curtailing the annual allocations to HEC, I think, is a misfortune not only to the academics as well as to the country. Many of their positive initiatives have been stopped due to fund constraints. The silver lining that has started appearing has again vanished.
Do you think HEC has failed to achieve its objective?
No. I cant say this. For assessing performance of any institution you have to look at the larger picture. In case of education, results cannot be assessed in 5 to 10 years. During one decade you cannot educate even one generation; at least 16 years education is required to groom an educated generation. Higher education will not create an impact in a single decade, as changes occur when you continue pouring the required finance in the higher education for 20 to 30 years. For assessing performance of anybody it is essential that you firstly provide them all the facilities to perform. You cannot hold somebody accountable if you create obstacles in the way of his/her performance. At present this is the case with HEC. They are not allowed to work. So they could not be held accountable.
Can we produce good engineers and scientists without improving our basic education system?
Actually there is a misconception that there is too much emphasis on the higher education and less on the primary and secondary education. In Pakistan only 5 to 6 per cent of the people reach the university level education while it is more than 80 per cent in the developed world. In fact we are spending very less on higher education. It is most important to reform our primary, secondary and higher secondary schooling but it should not be done at the cost of higher education. The programmes of HEC have created media hype and people think that more allocation is made for higher education as compared to primary and secondary education programmes. This is not the case. The failure actually is of the authorities managing the primary and secondary education programmes. They should be held accountable for their non-performance, which is resulting in a poor performance by public sector schools. HEC had done a good job and even now the Indians have copied and starting the HEC devised plans for promoting higher education.
How much do you think we require scientific education at the school level?
I am not in a position to say anything but I will like to add that we require education and training. We require education that creates thinking ability in the students. Sadly the present teaching methodology is not creating thinking abilities among pupils. One of the main reasons is the poor standard of the teachers, as one who fails to find any job opts to become a teacher and second reason is that school teaching is a low paid job which also hinders entry of bright individuals. Just to give one example about the importance of teachers, after World War I Japanese school teachers were more highly paid than their executives.
How can universities help promote entrepreneurship?
Our universities themselves are very low on the entrepreneurship scale. They have still not managed to take benefit of the knowledge they are spreading. We are far below than the required entrepreneurship level required in a university. You can earn from your knowledge only if you have complete command over the subject and importantly faith in your ability that you utilize it for the benefit of the society. Most of the successful businesses in the world revolve around solving problems of the people. But it also requires complete understanding of the problem to find a suitable solution that gets popular in the public and they are willing to pay. Universities are offering entrepreneurship courses but it is at an initial stage and we need to promote it. We should focus on the fundamentals of the students to help them utilize their knowledge for businesses. Until our teachers start independent thinking the quality of students will not improve. Private businesses flourish only if they manage to tap the knowledge and skills. HEC was doing a good job in promoting quality of teachers.
Are you satisfied with the new science and technology innovation policy in the country?
I am willing to say that if they want to implement any policy they drafted 40 years back, it is good and should be implemented. All the policies are very good but the real task remains – its implementation. Policy making is not a big task, so during the last many years we have made umpteen policies but failed to implement any of them. It is suffice to say that we should learn a lesson from the story which tells us that the development plan drafted by Dr. Mahboob-ul-Haq for Pakistan was implemented by South Korea to emerge as a major economic power, while our conditions worsened by not implementing it.
Which key areas you think should be the governments focus for growth?
Education is the most important. As it is the one area in which if a country starts making improvement the other sectors correspondingly start showing improvement. With education the countries develop. We are doing two education programmes, one is e-village and other is one world youth programme. In the first programme we have provided computers to a village and our students regularly visit the village to impart training and understanding to the villagers and students about ICT. Under the second programme a linkage is being established between university and school students to create awareness and understanding of the scientific issues among the school going children.
Why do students do very few need based projects?
Actually what we lack is independent thinking. We do not develop thinking habit in our students, when faced with some problem they will look to answer from internet or books. That is why I said that entrepreneurship will flourish only when you have complete understanding of the problem and then you could think out a novel solution. We are doing two need based projects one is with the Holy Family Hospital and we are making for them a robotic simulator that will be used for doctors training and second one relates to network solutions for a local broadband company, NayaTel.
What are your views on the absence of the academia-industry linkage?
It is a big dilemma that creates monotony in our education, as well as in faculty members. The teachers take the easy route and make notes in the first year of service and then retire after 40 years of service using same notes. It is essential to engage faculty members with the industry. We are trying to engage our faculty members with the industry during summer vacations. But that is one side of the story; on the industry side, their base is small and they could not offer faculty members to join them for a longer period of time to advise on improvement in their business processes. Even the universities could not relieve teachers for a longer time as they too face dearth of teachers. HEC was playing an important role by offering scholarships for PhDs as more the numbers of qualified people are around, the faculties could hire them to overcome human resource problems. It is also important to have more qualified people as when they dont find proper jobs they start successful businesses. I will just give one example of Roads and Schwartz company started by two highly qualified people who saw an opportunity in repairing of military hardware.
Do you think language is a barrier?
Not at all. I studied in government schools and never in my life has language ever become a problem for me in education or career. We need creation of more opportunities so that people could take benefit from it. The people promoting the cause of Urdu or other regional languages have vested interests. They could bring us to a standstill as you will need translating all the important knowledge. It is not an easy task and the supporters should start translating all the important works and after they have finished it is then they should seek support for their cause. Even now China has introduced English as a second language considering the immense knowledge available in the English language.
Any message for us and the readers?
I have been reading Technology Times for the last two-and-a-half years. It is a very good weekly newspaper as it covers various issues in depth. I will suggest that you should have student representatives in all the universities which cover the activities of the students. It will further increase your popularity among the students. And we should make less new policies and try to implement the already ones we have drafted and got approved. Education should be the basic focus. We should provide education to all and for that we dont need a uniform curriculum to be implemented across the country. There are different sets of curricula in the same country. We should provide access to opportunities to our children and youth.