Dr Ashfaque H Khan
The world is witnessing the emergence of a knowledge-based economy where the role of knowledge is recognised as critical input to economic growth and development. Higher education indeed is critical for acquiring knowledge and joining the league of a knowledge-based economy.
Education in general and higher education in particular is of special significance for Pakistan to live as a civilised society in the comity of nations. At the time of independence in 1947, Pakistan’s population was 32.5 million. By 2009-10, the population is estimated to have reached 166.5 million. Thus, in roughly 63 years, or in two generations, Pakistan’s population has increased by 134 million or has grown at an average rate of 2.6 per cent per annum.
Pakistan today has more mouths to feed, more families to house, more children to educate and more people looking for gainful employment with millions migrating from the countryside to major cities in search for jobs. The large population on the other hand also provides an opportunity for Pakistan to fuel its economic growth for the next fifty years by reaping demographic dividends.
Pakistan is witnessing changes in the age structure of its population, with the proportion of working-age population (15-59 years) increasing and offering a window of opportunity to turn this demographic transition into a demographic dividend. As a result of a decline in the total fertility rate down to 3.6 per cent from as high as 6.3 in the 1970s, the share of working-age population has increased, while the share of young (0-14 years) population has witnessed a decline.
Pakistan is a young country with a median age of around 20 years. It is estimated that there are approximately 104 million people below the age of 30 years; 90 million below the age of 19 years; and an approximate population of 40 million between the ages 10 and 19 ready to enter universities in a few years time. This 90-million young population in general and the 40 million youth in particular are of critical importance for Pakistan’s future as a civilised society by actively participating in the knowledge-based global economy.
How to convert demographic transition into demographic dividend is the real challenge for a Pakistan going forward. This transition to dividend will not be automatic. Massive investment in people — health, education, vocational training will be vital for achieving the dividend. East Asia successfully converted demographic transition into demographic dividend by investing in people in the 1970s.
For Pakistan, this is a time-specific window of opportunity. This opportunity is not going to last forever. Pakistan has no option but to grab this opportunity by investing in its people. If we fail to transform the 90 million young people in general and the 40 million youth in particular into productive citizens by investing in them, the future of Pakistan would be bleak. Could we afford that?
It is in this perspective that investment in education and health is important. Unfortunately, whenever the country faced budget constraints, spendings on education and health became victims of financial indiscipline. The recent stalemate between the misguided finance team and the respected vice-chancellors is a classic example. It is the university which, by imparting quality education not only produces high-quality manpower but good-quality graduates to teach school- and college-level students. Hence, the quality of teaching would depend on quality of graduates graduating from universities which, in turn, would depend on the resources made available to the universities by the government.
The importance accorded to higher education in Pakistan is still at the age of infancy. Pakistani universities have always been starved of resources until the establishment of the HEC in September 2002 by the previous government. Substantial resources were provided to the universities and as a result both the quality and quantity of university graduates increased tremendously. The enrollment to higher education more than tripled in just eight years; the number of universities more than doubled; the number of PhDs produced by Pakistani universities almost quadrupled; nearly 4000 students were sent abroad to complete their PhDs and almost an equal number are completing their doctorates in Pakistani universities. Most importantly, teaching in universities has emerged as a prestigious and prized profession in Pakistan.
Instead of further enhancing the quality and quantity of university graduates by allocating more resources to them, the present government began to cut their budgets even before the adverse effects of the floods. If we do not invest sufficiently in education, higher education, health and training, we will not be able to transform the millions of youth into a productive and responsible citizens of this country. Failure to invest is not an option. Pakistani universities desperately need financial support from the government.
What is required from the misguided economic managers is to re-prioritise their expenditures. Before lecturing the vice-chancellors r on the need for them to prioritise their expenditures, they should first set an example themselves. After all, charity begins at home.
The writer is director general and dean at NUST Business School, Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org