A Degree in Engineering
By Dr A Q Khan
KRL used to organize many international conferences on important technological and scientific subjects, usually covering those disciplines that were of direct relevance and importance to them. The aim of such conferences was to gather together a large number of participants from abroad to provide Pakistani scientists and engineers an opportunity to interact with foreign experts, exchange views, seek their guidance and initiate contacts with them for future studies abroad. These conferences covered such varied subjects as vacuum technology, advanced materials, phase transformations, software engineering, fluid dynamics, super conductors, magnetic materials, mechanical vibrations, and biomedical sciences.
It also enabled Pakistani scientists and engineers to present their research papers in the presence of foreign experts, which gave them self-confidence and enabled them to learn from constructive criticism and advice. The conferences attracted professors and experts from countries including Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, China, Egypt, Germany, Holland, India, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the USA. It was an extremely healthy exercise which, unfortunately, has since been discontinued.
When I started our enrichment program in 1976, and later the weapons program in 1981, I found out that the standard of our graduates was far below that of European graduates. Not only did they lack in basic knowledge, but there was also a severe dearth of self-confidence. I selected those I considered to be the best for my initial team and, thanks to their dedication and willingness to learn, we managed to complete the program in a relatively short span of time.
I still vividly remember how, during one of the interviews, we ran into a cocky physicist who was all out to impress us with his brilliant educational record, having secured first position every time and being on the Honor Roll in the MSc physics program at the Government College, Lahore. I just listened while my colleagues did the questioning. At the end I asked him to show graphically the linear relationship between two quantities. I was shocked by the fact that he was unable to do so. I then asked him how he would determine by a simple experiment whether or not a small piece of wire was a conductor or a semi-conductor. Again we drew a blank.
Years later, there was an annual get-together of old Ravians where I was invited as chief guest. The late Dr Arif (advisor to the late Chief Minister Wyne), the late Mr Hanif Ramay (a former chief minister), Mr Majid Nizami and other Ravians paid tributes to their Alma Mater, claiming that the affairs of Pakistan were being run by the Ravians. I could not help remarking that Pakistan's condition in all spheres did not speak highly of their performance.
While studying in Germany, Holland and Belgium, we visited many industrial units and other universities to broaden our vision. In my case, I visited such industries and institutes in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, England, Austria, Italy, Sweden and Denmark and gained invaluable knowledge and experience from it.
I would like to do justice to the graduates of the various institutions by stressing that the fault was (and is) not theirs. It is the outdated system and lack of facilities that hold them back and prevent them from becoming well-equipped and well-informed. During one of the conferences mentioned above, a British professor asked what the monthly fee at a public university was. When informed what this nominal amount was, he quipped: "Well, you can see that from the end-product."
One serious defect in our educational system in general, and our scientific and technological education in particular, is that most of it is based on rote learning. Also, facilities are inadequate. For the greater part, studies consist of memorizing the answers to question papers of the past five years without any attempt to encourage comprehension of the subject. After graduating from this system, students have not fully developed their natural talents. The high school exam is a tough nut to crack because of the number of subjects. As one proceeds into higher education it becomes relatively easier because the subject matter is more limited.
This has resulted in a number of cases of fake high school certificates followed by genuine BA and BSc degrees. After an MSc degree from a Pakistani university, studying abroad for a PhD becomes a question of time and some effort. In most cases the supervisor and other doctoral students help, especially if the student is from a Third World country. A PhD degree is obtained while acquiring a lot of knowledge on a very limited subject. Since the foundation was weak to start off with, subsequent building blocks cannot be expected to be solid and strong.
In order to overcome this deficiency, we had initiated a novel program at KRL. We recruited the best BSc degree holders available and then sent them to the UK to study at good universities to obtain BSc (Hons) degrees in various disciplines. This basic grounding gave them the solid foundation required. Some were allowed to continue for an MSc degree, came back, worked for a few years and were then again allowed to go for PhD work.
Although this was somewhat costly in financial terms, these engineers and scientists turned out to be great assets to us. They were not only competent, but did not hesitate in taking initiatives. The principle behind this was taken from my own experiences. I had gone to Germany after completing my BSc. I obtained a thorough grounding for five years before earning an MSc Technology and then went on to complete a doctor of engineering degree. It was this solid base that later enabled me to handle the most difficult and complicated enrichment and missile programs.
Coming back to engineering education, I would like to point out that engineering is a diverse, wide-ranging profession offering challenging careers in a wide range of areas. One should realize that, within any area of engineering, professional engineers are involved in a wide range of different activities such as design, research, development, production and marketing. Only engineers with good qualities, abilities, skills and initiative to a high level of technical expertise can cope with such a challenge.
A very serious shortcoming in the development of the capabilities of our engineers is the absence of industrial training during their studies. When I went to Berlin, it was compulsory to have at least six months of practical industrial training before joining the university. In my particular case, I had spent three months at Siemens in Karachi and then six months in Germany, working during the day and learning German in the evening, as all courses were taught in German. Having acquired that practical experience even before starting my studies was an invaluable asset.
Unfortunately, this practice is not followed in Pakistan as most industries don't offer such facilities. Our government should make such practical experience compulsory too, either before starting studies or during the course of the studies. I have heard that this is indeed the practice at some universities, but I was unable to confirm it. For both scientists and engineers there are always challenges to face and to solve, laws of nature to be determined and items of use to humankind to be invented and produced. Some of the things that are of daily use in our life now seemed impossible a generation ago. This was aptly expressed by Robert H Goddard in these words: "It is difficult to say what is impossible for the dream of yesterday, is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."
Investment in education could not be better described than by the words used by the Chinese genius Kuan Chung centuries ago: "If you plan for a year, plant a seed; if for 10 years, plant a tree; if for a 100 years, teach the people. When you sow a seed once, you reap a single harvest; when you teach the people, you will reap a 100 harvests."
In my last article I had mentioned the invaluable advice given by the great Muslim scholar Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kundi, that one should not be ashamed to ask questions to determine the truth and to acknowledge this fact without any hesitation. (Courtesy The News)