Published in Sep-Oct 2021
In December 2019, the Government of Pakistan launched the Digital Pakistan initiative to help the country compete with digital markets globally as well as create jobs locally and ensure efficiency and transparency in the business environment.
The five key areas of this initiative are as follows. Access and connectivity: introduction of low-cost devices, internet access, affordable data and taxation of broadband internet; Digital Infrastructure through regulations, identity systems and payment solutions; E-government: paperless procurement, ease of sharing data within departments and interlinked resources; Digital skills and training: technical skills, boot camps, vocational opportunities and digital literacy; Innovation and entrepreneurship: enabling the start-up ecosystem and encouraging ease of doing business.
Although ambitious, the implementation of these initiatives comes with multiple challenges, some of which include developing the right policies and infrastructure, expanding access to technology, ensuring data security, providing support and maintenance and promoting cultural changes and digital literacy. Equally important is having the right workforce in place to implement these initiatives, given that the growth of technology is directly dependent on the availability of highly skilled labour. For this to happen there needs to be a stronger collaboration between the IT industry, academia, as well as public and private partnerships. The question here is whether academia and industry are ready to meet these challenges.
A Shortage of Top Quality Graduates
The biggest challenge is a shortage of top-quality graduates. According to Asif Peer, CEO/MD, Systems Limited (one the largest software houses in Pakistan), of the total number of graduates from 184 universities in Pakistan offering IT, Computer Science and Software Engineering degrees, only 2,000 to 4,000 are hireable and most of them are graduates from top-tier universities in Pakistan. Graduates who experience difficulty finding employment are either those with lower GPAs or whose basic tech concepts are weak. This, it seems, is attributable to weaknesses in the education system (curriculums not updated, bad teachers and a lack of mentorship).
“COMSATS, FAST NUCES, GIKI, IBA, LUMS and NUST produce good graduates but they are only a handful. There is high demand for IT graduates today and we cannot wait another four years for the next batch to graduate. We need resources immediately,” says Peer. The best way to deal with this, according to him, is to induct unemployed graduates into the workforce after enrolling them in six-month to one-year training programmes at second- and third-tier educational institutes. In his opinion, the government can play an important role in setting up institutes that offer associate degrees and certifications and where faculty members include industry professionals. “It should not be a student’s fault if he has graduated from ‘XYZ’ university. He has a Computer Science degree and he should be hired. We have to bring them at par with industry demands.”
Sabieh Anwar, Dean, Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering, LUMS, is of the opinion that computer or digital science cannot work in a vacuum and it is important to have strong school systems that encourage critical thinking, visualisation and abstract thinking. Furthermore, curriculums should be strengthened and students should be encouraged to learn computer programming and coding at an early age. He says that the role of non-governmental organisations cannot be underestimated; several, he adds, are working to revamp the educational system at the school level and include the Adopt-a-School programme by the Sindh Education Foundation, Arfa Karim Foundation, Learnobots and Zindagi Trust.
Peer also believes in the importance of having more specialised IT universities. At the moment, there are multiple universities with small computer science departments that seem bent on offering every sort of degree. In fact, he says, even the specialised IT universities that used to offer only BCS and MCS degrees a few years ago have started offering business or humanities degrees. They produce 200 IT graduates and altogether a thousand other graduates every year. “Why not produce a thousand IT computer scientists?” he questions.
Another issue is that graduates often lack hands-on training in specific technologies, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and supply chain management. None of these, according to Peer, are taught even at the top-tier universities. He adds that despite approaching universities and asking them to send their students in their last semesters or during their final projects to companies, academia has shown little interest. There are graduates that come for summer internships but they do so at their initiative. Imtiaz Noor, CEO, Orangefox (a marketing tech company), adds that the tech industry has been complaining about the poor outreach by academia. He says collaboration is the need of the hour. “Our IT exports are worth two billion dollars; if we are aiming to reach the four to five billion mark, we need a steady supply line of capable people.”
Academia have their own perspective. Basit Shafiq, Head of IT at LUMS, says the role of a university is not to serve as a vocational institute to develop skills in a student so that he finds employment. Rather, the role of universities is to awaken minds and inculcate knowledge. “We teach them concepts, theory, and fundamentals. Students can infer and contribute to this knowledge and learn themselves.” Shafiq adds that no matter how well prepared a student may be, all jobs have their own set of requirements and students have to learn them on the job. On a general level, most universities are trying to include interdisciplinary courses within the IT curriculum. In fact, some universities have started engaging with the local IT industry, making it mandatory for their students to do their senior year projects at software houses. They are also introducing industry-focused senior year projects where industry provide ideas for students to work on and then supervise those projects as well as give lectures.
Widening the Faculty Pool
Both industry and academia agree that to produce the best IT workforce, hiring good faculty is a must. A solution may be to engage faculty directly from industry. However, most universities prefer in-faculty because they want them to take ownership of the courses. In their opinion, teaching not only entails delivering a lecture but also regular interaction with students, something visiting faculty are not always able to offer. Several universities have, however, hired industry professionals as permanent faculty. “They may not have a PhD but they come with 20 years’ experience and that counts,” says Dr Atif Tahir, Director FAST NUCES. He adds that since it is difficult to hire people with PhDs, “we provide our non-PhD faculty members with the opportunity to register for PhD courses free of cost, without conditions, which they must complete in a span of three-and-a-half years.” In Anwar’s opinion, to encourage IT education, the most important step, apart from strengthening schools, is to celebrate and value teachers and invest in them. His view is that teaching requires a special forte and a PhD degree is not a licence to teach. His suggestion is that PhDs from second- and third-tier universities, or those who are unemployed, should be taken through a recruitment process and given the relevant skills.