Pakistani universities produce around 25,000 graduates per year. For our information technology exports to increase by $3-4 billion a year, we need to add to increase this number to around 100,000 IT professionals per year.
This is an extremely difficult and costly exercise as producing this many professionals requires massive investment in infrastructure by creating new universities and increasing the capacity of existing universities. One of the best and cost-effective ways to do this is by using the existing infrastructure and doing short programmes such as six-month boot camps, one-year diplomas, and two-year industry-focused degrees.
As a country, we should also explore the model of industry-oriented universities similar to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and industry-oriented Fachhochschulen universities in Europe.
India has made huge investments in IIT where they take in around 2,000 students per IIT from all over India. This has allowed them to create an extraordinary class of individuals who go on to lead the best companies in the world as well as in India.
We should teach programming to students instead of theories of who invented the computer — this is already happening in KP where government school students can create websites and games at the school level
The second concept is of the industry-oriented universities similar to ones in Germany or Austria where students interested in joining a field go for Fachhochschulen universities. In such universities, usually, no Masters degree is offered and the focus is completely on training professionals for the field. The professors hired usually have at least three years of experience working in the sector.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) recently introduced a two-year associate degree at the Bachelors level. The only difference in this idea would be to focus on only industry-related skills in this two-year degree. Many would argue that why we need universities at all since it’s a skill-based world now. The problem in Pakistan mostly is that parents and society value degrees and we need to have some sort of degree from the HEC to incentivise them.
Such degrees would allow students to come early into the market, reduce the cost of getting into the industry by 50 per cent as well as allow them to become bread earners for their families early. They can continue their education over weekends or online programmes for a four-year degree.
The degree should be designed together with industry standards and 50pc of the faculty should be from the industry to teach these professionals. The industry can also work with universities to create a Qarz-e-Hasna programme where the industry can fund the scholarship of students who can later come to work for the industry for healthy salaries and their loans can be waived off by the industry.
Online skill training is one of the most talked-about topics and is proving very effective globally. Anyone can go on a website like Coursera or Udemy and take a course in artificial intelligence or blockchain. They can learn the skill. The question here is why is it still not happening at higher levels in Pakistan? Why do we hardly see students who have used these websites to reskill them or learn new skills?
While I can talk about a dozen problems of why it is not happening, in Pakistan, the formula to make an online skill training programme successful is to have remote monitoring of students where they are given tasks. This is more true for coding programmes where student codes and projects can be reviewed remotely by a team of programmers. This can be combined with online group lectures or motivational training to make them feel that they are part of something real and it will benefit them.
As a country, we need to create such a hybrid programme as a completely online programme won’t work for most of our students. Ignite National Technology Fund and the Ministry of IT in collaboration with the Virtual University already have some experience of running such programmes.
The idea of boot camps is also very popular in the tech industry where professionals are engaged in a six-month rigorous course and trained in a specific technology. The cost of such a programme can depend on the technology. These boot camps are used all over the world to train students from other fields to reskill them for skills like programming, cloud, etc.
We can create boot camps that are led by industry experts in collaboration with universities for some core courses to train our graduates from other areas and equip them with the latest technology skills.
One of the last but most critical pieces of the entire plan is the need to create a specially designed curriculum for our higher secondary students that focuses on teaching them programming and analytical skills at the school level. We should review the current curriculum of higher secondary school students so that the quality of student intake at universities and future programmes can increase.
We can also teach programming to students instead of theories of who invented the computer, which was the biggest computer in the world and how the world is making supercomputers. This is already happening in KP where government school students can create websites and games at the school level. We just need to roll it out to the entire country.
The IT and IT-enabled services industry is a promising industry not only for the export sector of Pakistan but also for creating a highly paid market for youth. There is also a need for all government departments like Pakistan Software Export Board, Ignite, HEC, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Technology Board, Punjab Information Technology Board, provincial and federal educational ministries, etc who are working on digital skills to work together to solve this challenge for Pakistan’s bright future.
The writer is the ex-chairman of Pakistan Software Houses Association and runs an IT company based out of Islamabad
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 18th, 2021