On Technical Education
By Dr A Q Khan
Education is a very important subject for every nation. So much has already been written on the topic that one hesitates to add more to it. Reports, articles, yearbooks, and World Bank, IMF and UNESCO reports contain data on the money spent by every country, literacy rates, number of students enrolled and of children denied access to primary education.
There is a general perception that literacy alone is a panacea for all ills and can solve all of a country's economic problems. Nothing is further from the truth. A closer look at Sri Lanka shows that, despite a literacy rate of almost 98 percent, it is still underdeveloped and poverty and unemployment are at a peak.
I am fully aware that those who have written on this topic have tried hard to be as objective as possible and show all data and statistics. A very large part of what is contained in this article (and what will be contained in future articles) has been put forward as my personal opinion based on my own efforts and the results obtained. Detailed references or acknowledgements to other authors and experts have not been easy, or even possible, as I have had to transform or modify whatever I have learnt or used, in order to adapt it to our educational system and the country. My main sources will become obvious to any reader familiar with the system and/or literature on the subject.
Since time immemorial, mankind has been attempting to use the resources of the earth for its own wellbeing so as to be able to live a prosperous and comfortable life. With the passage of time, and as the human mind developed, requirements increased and man endeavored to discover nature's secrets so as to make them more useful for themselves. Initially, progress was slow, but over the last decades the process has accelerated at a fast pace. During the last two centuries, enormous advances have been made. Inventions and discoveries now outnumber even the number of human beings themselves. Phenomenal progress has taken place in the field of science and technology in the post-World War II era, surpassing all previous achievements.
The unfortunate part of this story is that nowadays most of the scientific developments originate in Western countries, i.e., Europe and the USA. In the rest of the world, only Japan has shown excellence in research in all technological fields. Third World countries are "users only," for which they have to pay a very high price and which, in turn, prevents them from making significant contributions towards development. They are thus loitering in the wilderness and are paying a high price for their ignorance.
The position of the Muslim countries on the whole is not different from that of the rest of the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even the Arab nations, owning oil reserves which are of strategic and economic importance to the international community, have not been able to develop themselves independently in terms of scientific and technological advancement. The process of equipping themselves with advanced technologies has mainly been based on import rather than transfer of technologies. Besides the consumption of precious capital, this mode of acquiring technology also results in political and economic dependence on the developed West. This situation should not be allowed to persist any longer, as it undermines the long-term processes of development. Not only do we need to make up for lost time, but we will also have to march ahead in order to keep abreast with the advanced countries.
In the Islamic World, there is an urgent need for a research-oriented approach to be institutionalized, in the sphere of both natural and social sciences. In order to develop such an infrastructure, there must be a break from the conventional practices in vogue in colleges and universities. Apart from this, students should be exposed to more practical and industrial research, so as to improve the status of science and technology in Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular. This is also the case for the social sciences. The ideas, theories and dictums emanating from various alien sources dominate our intellectual thought. It is pitiable that foreign minds dictate our policies, rather than we ourselves creating our own vision of how our world should function and look.
While at a global level, the rate of technological advancement is progressing tremendously, the scenario in our country is not very enviable. It is indeed very sad to realize that, even in other Muslim countries where highly talented manpower and capital resources are available, scientific research and development activities are almost non-existent. It must be realized that technological development cannot be achieved without a proper infrastructure and the provision of the necessary engineering education. To achieve these desired ends, the establishment of research facilities and institutions of higher learning in the field of science and technology is imperative. The proposed establishment of a few institutes for advanced studies and advanced technologies in Pakistan has been the right step in that direction. Such institutes for advanced studies would provide students with an atmosphere where they can have an exciting, rewarding and challenging time on campus. They should be exposed to new ideas in new ways. Competent tutors will have to be searched for to work with them to try to fulfill their potential and achieve their ambitions. The aim of institutes for advanced studies will have to be to produce graduates who will have developed new knowledge and skills, who are expected to be well-equipped to make our country a member of the developed and prosperous world and who will be able to take control of their own futures.
It should be realized that the world of scientific and technological education and research is a distinct entity. It is also a fact of life that education, especially scientific and technological education, is not cheap. Almost three decades ago, Mr Derek Bok, then president of the most famous seat of learning – Harvard University – pointed out at a donors' conference: "If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance." In my previous article I had quoted the warning given by Prof Alfred North Whitehead in which he stated that the nation that does not value and utilize the services of trained intelligentsia and does not keep pace with progress in science is doomed.
Our own Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, though not a scientist or a technocrat, was not unaware of the importance of science and technology for the development of Pakistan. He had drawn attention to this by his words: "There is an immediate and urgent need for training our people in scientific and technical education in order to build up our future economic life.… Do not forget that we have to compete with the world which is moving very fast in this direction."
I am well aware that without a solid foundation built on primary and secondary education, we cannot build a castle of advanced education and technology. I will return to this topic in future articles.
I would like to emphasize that the notion that the whole nation is entitled to higher education, whether technical or non-technical, is a fallacy. Even in the most advanced countries of the West, hardly two percent of students are able to find the opportunity and/or resources to go to university. This was brought home to me in the welcoming lecture by my head of department at the Technical University of Berlin, Dr Wagon, in which he said: "Gentlemen, look in front of you, behind you, to your right and to your left–only one of all these people will leave the university with a degree." I was one of the lucky ones. There has to be a fine balance between skilled labor and qualified scientists and engineers. The secret of the success of most industrialized and advanced countries lies in the training of highly skilled manpower at polytechnic and lower polytechnic levels, usually identified as Higher Technical Certificate and Lower Technical Certificate. I would again and again like to emphasize that a large part of the progress and prosperity of a nation depends on the achievements of its engineering profession. (Courtesy The News)