Sunday, September 30, 2012

The FUTA March and Pakistan’s Miracle


by Professor Priyan Dias

As the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) march for education was wending its way from Kalutara to Moratuwa on Thursday 27th September 2012, a curiously parallel activity was taking place at the auditorium of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement Science (SLAAS), namely the delivery of a lecture by Professor Atta ur Rahman, FRS, on the transformation of higher education and science & technology in Pakistan, the lecture being arranged by the National Academy of Sciences, Sri Lanka (NASSL).

I went for the lecture because it was on higher education, which we all know is in crisis right now, with academics on strike without pay to demand better resourcing by the state; also because he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a rare honour for any scientist. As I recall, the only Sri Lankan to have received this honour is Professor Malik Peiris who works out of Hong Kong and directed the isolation of the SARS virus. What I discovered at the lecture however was that Prof. Rahman was also a technocrat, who advised and persuaded President Pervez Musharraf to increase spending on higher education by 2400% and on science & technology by a whopping 6000%.

Rahman was appointed Federal Minister for Science & Technology by Musharraf (2000-02) and then as the Head of the Higher Education Commission and the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor (2002-2008); and the unassuming Professor kept us spellbound as he described how both the President and Prime Minister helped him to cut through red tape and spend the allocated money. How was the money spent?

The majority of money (1 billion US dollars) was spent on sending the best graduating students (around 11,000 of them) to top Western universities for their PhDs. There was apparently a special Fulbright scholarship program to send students to the U.S., but Pakistan insisted on paying 50% of the costs, in exchange for deciding which universities they would be placed in. A year before their PhDs were to finish, these postgraduate students could apply for grants of up to 100,000 US dollars to be utilized on their first year of research (including their stipends) immediately they returned to Pakistan – what a way to get them back! This is because Rahman allowed for university procedures that could take up to a year for enrolling such returnees on the academic staff.

All new recruits such as the above had to be placed on "tenure track", which meant that they would get "tenured" or permanent status only after a rigorous review by an international panel after six years. Such appointees typically got paid around 5,000 US dollars per month, around five times higher than a Federal Minister (and their other academic colleagues as well, I guess). But failure in review meant that they were out of a job. The existing academic staff cadre at the time of the reforms was asked to choose between their "safe" job with less pay and the "tenure track" with high risks and benefits.

Generous funding was made available for equipment too, but in a strategic manner without too much replication. However, because of the lack of red tape, any institution could use the equipment of another, the generated bill being paid by the state. Access to online journals was mentioned too, something that academics and research students struggle with, but which any decent Western university provides at the click of a button. So most of us have to rely on our current postgraduate students overseas for getting us journal access – some of us can’t even access soft copies of articles that we ourselves have authored!! Not so anymore in Pakistan, from what we heard. Rahman was careful to mention that such promotion of scholars and scholarship was not confined to science & technology alone, but encompassed all disciplines.

So what were the improvements (from around 2002 to 2011)? The quantity and quality of returning academic staff made it possible to increase university enrolment from 275,000 to 950,000 and the number of state universities and degree awarding institutes from 59 to 137, with 3,600 PhDs produced. Pakistani publications in ISI journals increased from 500 to 8,000 per year, rivaling India on a per capita basis. (Sri Lanka’s own number is presently around 300 per year, which means that our current academic quality is not an impediment to take off like Pakistan). Pakistan’s silent revolution attracted editorial comment from the prestigious science journal Nature, i.e. "The Paradox of Pakistan" (29 November 2007), "After Musharraf" (28 August 2008), "Cash costs" (3 September 2009) and "Investment in Pakistan" (23 September 2010). Pakistan’s investment in higher education is also beginning to bear fruit now, with science & technology based companies beginning to create wealth.

At the question time, someone asked whether the universities should not seek to generate their own funds or create science parks and venture capital partnerships. Rahman was of the firm view that spin offs may come only 10 to 20 years after significant investment. He also said that even the best universities in Europe received 92% of their funding from the state – this received much applause.

He seemed aware of the FUTA slogan and declared that 6% of GDP was eminently possible and offered to personally convince H.E. the President himself. He said that the reforms were not universally popular but gained acceptance within two to three years. Although his personal prestige as a scientist would clearly have been a significant factor in both his influence and independence, he insisted that it did not need scientists to convince a head of state that investing in science, technology and higher education was the way forward in a knowledge economy.

I wondered (and still do) why and how Musharraf, himself a general, decided to spend so much on education – the defence budget would have suffered. Rahman did say that he may have asked Musharraf to reduce an F-16 or two from his arsenal to create the space for education. Contrast that with the Daily Mirror headline the day after the talk (and the same day as the scheduled FUTA rally following their five day march) – "Defence, Urban Dev. Budget tops Rs 290B". Is science funding as serendipitous as science itself? How was Anaximander able to say in 6th century BC Greece that the earth was help up on nothing, when his teacher Thales had said that it is supported on water, and others before that it was supported on a jar or a turtle? Is that the same kind of question as "How was Musharraf able to decide that science and education deserved massive funding"?

Towards the end I asked a question myself, as is my wont. I reminded the good professor that the last highly eminent Pakistani scientist we heard, Prof. Abdus Salam, complained that Pakistan was not friendly to scientists and ended up working at Imperial College London - from where he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (1979) for his work in unifying the weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces. I then asked him how he himself managed to do science and achieve global recognition even before 2002, when Musharraf’s revolutions took place. His answer demonstrated his perseverance in the face of adversity, the true mark of a scientist or educator. He said he returned to Pakistan after nine years in Cambridge, which must have been a journey from the promised land to the wilderness (scientifically speaking). When he wanted an NMR instrument, he had written to around 350 grant agencies before he got one. When he wanted a Mass spectrophotometer, after 100 such letters he decided to approach the National Bank of Pakistan (I think it was) for a loan, which he got because he had armed himself with letters from 10 scientific institutions in Pakistan to cover the collateral.

I hope and pray that the day will dawn in a teardrop shaped island state not far from Pakistan when science, technology and education will be heavily invested in by the state, for the future of all who live in that state. If that day does not dawn, or is slow in arriving, I pray equally that her scientists, technologists and educators would strive against unimaginable odds to produce excellence out of adversity.

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