The Golden Period

By Prof Dr Wolfgang Voelter

Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman

For weeks now, I have followed the strange and mean campaigns of some Pakistani scientists and politicians against the efforts of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and its former Chairman Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman. The accusations are based on such meanness, malice or incompetence that as a friend of Pakistan and being involved for almost 35 years in the higher education of this country and having had the privilege of being one of the very few foreign scientists honoured by the Government of Pakistan with Civil Awards, I feel obliged to break my silence.

In 1974, when I was sent to Pakistan on an identification trip by the German Government to look for a cooperation partner, I visited about 15 heads of research institutions throughout Pakistan, and, strongly disappointed, I found a vast scientific desert in the country: sophisticated instruments, donations from abroad, out of order, empty libraries, laboratories lacking chemicals and frustrated professors.

But there was one exception, the so-called Postgraduate Institute of Chemistry, Karachi University, founded by Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui and developed later by Dr Atta, and I could only confirm the impressions of the journalist, late Azim Kidwai, who wrote in Dawn: “One has to visit to believe it. There is at least one scientific institution in Pakistan that is comparable to any of that breed in the most-advanced countries; not only the way it is equipped and maintained, but also the way, people work in it. There appears no element of lousiness. Dedication, hard work, excellence pour into test tubes.” These experiences made the selection of my cooperation partner easy. Based on my 700-page expert report, finally five million DM were granted by the German government for the KarachiTuebingen Project. The overwhelming success of the HEJ Research Institute in Karachi, Dr Atta’s intellectual capacity, dedication and enthusiasm about science and his keenness to eliminate lousiness and ineptitude were the reasons for Prof Atta’s merit-based nomination as minister of Science and Technology and later on as federal minister and chairman of the HEC.

And a miracle happened. The scenario of education, science and technology in Pakistan changed dramatically after Prof Atta’s nomination as never before in the history of Pakistan. The chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Education recently announced it as “Pakistan’s golden period in higher education.” Due to Dr Atta’s efforts in a short period of two years, between 2000 to 2002, Pakistan made spectacular progress in Information Technology and became the first in the entire region to have its own education satellite — Paksat 1 — in space.

In a short period of five years, university enrolment almost tripled and efforts to promote research have resulted in a 400 per cent increase in international publications and a 600 per cent increase in foreign citations of the work of Pakistani authors. During 1947-2003, not a single university in Pakistan could be ranked among the top 600 of the world, but today three Pakistani universities belong to this prestigious group, with the National University of Science and Technology at No 376 (Times, Higher Education, UK rankings).

I remember visiting a number of libraries in universities in Pakistan in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and one did not find even half a dozen of the latest journals there. Today, under the HEC digital library initiative, every public sector university has free access to over 25,000 of the latest international journals, 45,000 text books and research monographs from 220 international publishers.

It is not an ordinary thinking to bring the world’s top universities within the boundaries of Pakistan. I hope the visionary initiative of Dr Atta to establish foreign technical universities in partnership with Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Austria, and China, will be enthusiastically implemented by the new government and not shelved.

One of Dr Atta’s most important achievements is the excitement that he has been able to create in Pakistan’s brightest youth to opt for careers in education and research. Almost three thousand students have been sent abroad for PhD to top universities in the world through the HEC scholarship scheme. Dr Hoodbhoy is com pletely wrong when he criticises the selection process for foreign scholarships and claims that the students sent abroad were weak.

Almost half a dozen HEC PhD students worked under my guidance at our university in Tuebingen. And so far none of them failed or left our university without publishing work in journals of high repute. The HEC selection process was completely transparent and merit-based with the final selection being made by teams of eminent foreign professors who specially came to Pakistan and personally had face to face interviews with potential candidates.

Dr Atta’s (enforced?) resignation as HEC chief was a shock for the scientific community inside and outside Pakistan. Are the conclusions of the reports on the evaluation of HEC by foreign analysts, funeral sermons for the end of Pakistan’s ‘Golden period in higher education?’ “We are impressed with the breadth, scope, and depth of the reforms implemented by the HEC since 2002. No other developing country we know has made such spectacular progress.” (USAID report).

“I have worked in many countries in South America, the Middle East, North Africa, and in Russia and India, over the last six years. None in my view, with the exception of India, has the potential of Pakistan for the UK university sector, largely because of the dynamic, strategic leadership of the Chairman of HEC.” (British Council report).

Day by day more and more major concerns of university students are accumulating on the Internet, and I would like to mention here only a few of them:

• “I am really feeling bad that they cannot replace anyone who has capabilities like him. I am really worried about the future of HEC and HEC scholars outside the country.” • “The nation cannot afford the loss of Dr Atta as Chairman HEC. At present, there is none equal to Dr Atta who can work for the betterment of higher education in Pakistan.” • “The education sector will feel like an orphan in the absence of Dr Atta.” As I understood from the recent visit of our Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier, Pakistan is at present suffering from a financial crisis. One of the criticisms against Dr Atta is that too much money has been spent on higher education at the cost of lower education. In the last financial year Rs248 billion were spent on nationwide education [from federal as well as provincial governments] , of which only Rs28 billion (11 per cent of the total national education budget) went to higher education, while Rs220 billion were spent on lower level education, and according to the international norms, at least 25-30 per cent of the national budget should be spent on higher education. However, reducing the budget for the education sector would be the worst decision that could be made in Pakistan’s parliament: Education is the most effective remedy against terrorism; education is the fundamental basis for the prosperity of a nation, what should be supported with first priority by the government.

As a well-wisher of Pakistan, I was greatly saddened by the completely unjustified criticisms of HEC programmes. Pakistan should be grateful for the leadership provided by Dr Atta in science and technology, information technology and higher education sectors over the last eight years. He does not belong to any political party but is a scientist of the highest international standing, and his eminence and political neutrality is proved by the fact that he is the most decorated scientist of Pakistan.

Professor Atta-ur-Rahman grew up in an international scientific community, he knows in detail about the needs of the students and scientists. He wanted and still wants to realise a vision: to launch Pakistan’s higher education system from the platform of backwardness to a western stateof-the- art level. It was to be expected that the seniors of the Pakistani scientific establishment could mentally not follow the new era. Of course, fundamental parliamentary decisions need some time to prove their suitability for the nation, and then to become adapted to the needs of the country.

Though Dr Atta is a visionary, yet his inspiring intellect would not allow him to overcome insurmountable obstacles. He is receptive to criticism without losing his unfailing courtesy and flexible to change his mind; but arguments must be convincing. From my decades lasting experience with Pakistani bureaucracy, I would foresee a national tragedy, if the new government fails to make use of the unique expertise of one of Pakistan’s brightest brains.

The writer, who has been decorated with the Hilal-i-Pakistan and Sitara-i-Pakistan, is a professor at the Eberhard Karls University, Tuebingen, Germany.

Author’s profile:
http://www.fh- nta-allgemein/ stiftung/ prof-dr-dr- hcmult-wolfgang- voelter.html

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