INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION IN PAKISTAN

IT has left no niche of human life untouched today

By Syed M. Aslam
Aug 28 - Sep 03, 2000

No other word in the contemporary English language draws more awe and reverence than IT Information Technology. IT has become synonymous with class, success and worldly gains and the symbiotic relationship between human race and the personalised computers (PC). Its short history is replete with numerous rags-to-riches stories including that of world's richest person Bill Gates a high school dropout.

The word IT is being used like a cure-all mantra, a charm, a symbol of worldly prowess, an indication that one has arrived, an emotional feel-good, an educational cutting-edge, and much much more. It is surreptitiously sprinkled in talks to impress, win respect and an argument.

Like all other countries, Pakistan has not remained immune to the ongoing IT revolution in the world. Ask any high school student in Pakistan that what his future plans are and the chances are that an overwhelming majority will say that it will go into IT, whatever that means. The trend, however, is an ample proof that IT is seen as the in thing without which the dreams of a prosperity could no more come true, and for a genuine reason.

IT has left no niche of human life untouched today be it industry, trade, publishing, accounting, graphics, advertisement, movie-making, or otherwise routine office work. The increasing demand for IT related exposure and experience for jobs of all descriptions as visible from the 'Help Wanted' advertisements in the national dailies have made even the least discerning job seekers to realise that upgrading their computer skills is a must to get even a half decent job. Not for nothing the word IT has become an unending refrain to ensure a job placement today, a situation which will become a must in the near future.

This realisation has resulted in the massive demand for the IT education in the country which is clear from the mushrooming of institutions in every nook and corner of the urban centres in Pakistan. These IT institutions offer an array of certificates, diplomas and degree courses. Basically the IT institutions in Pakistan can be divided into three primary classes the government institutions, private institutions with foreign affiliations, and the totally locally-owned and operated institutions.

The IT phenomenon has taken Pakistan like a storm which poses many questions about the quality of IT education imparted by these institutions and its relevance to the local job market. The basic question is are we producing enough IT professionals to meet the demand and secondly, and more importantly what is the quality of work force that we are producing?

PAGE talked to a number of educationists at many prestigious IT institutions about the key issues related to IT education to help create awareness for the benefit of potential students as well as to help the policy makers make informed decisions.

FAST

The Foundation for Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) was established in 1980 as a private national institution to promote and accelerate the study of pure and applied science and technology in Pakistan. FAST has established the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES) and today has campuses in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. NUCES offers professional degree courses in Computer Science and Engineering and is regarded as one of the finest in Pakistan. It is producing hundreds of professional computer scientists each year the majority of which are eagerly taken by a number of top software houses in the country before the final results are out.

The three campuses have a total enrollment of over 1,100 students in its Bachelor and Master degree programmes in Computer Science to produce nearly half of the professional computer scientists in the country. NUCES' graduates today form the backbone of Pakistan's software export industry and FAST has produced hundreds of Bachelors and Masters in Computer Science over the years. Its graduates are holding responsible positions not only within the country but has also working overseas to put the country on the global IT map. Local software houses are known to pick-out FAST's students prior to the completion of their courses.

PAGE talked to the Director of NUCES Karachi campus, Dr Hilal Qureshi. He completed his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 1970 and was an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics University of Sindh from 1971 to 1973. In 1973, he joined Pakistan Navy as the head of a software team. He has taught at IBA Karachi and his areas of interest include Artificial Intelligence and Approximate Algorithms.

Dr Qureshi said that the shortage of Computer Science graduates in particular and IT professionals in general has become an issue of international importance due to a big gap between production and demand. The phenomenon has posed a particular problem for the developed countries all of which are reeling from either negative or extremely low birth rate. This is also the case with Pakistan although for an entirely different reason despite high population growth the lack of quality basic education and the shortage of quality IT institutes. This has deprived Pakistan to produce quality IT professionals as the majority of products coming out of these universities and institutes of every shape and sizes fall much short of accepted international standard.

He said that the chairman of Punjab Information Technology Commission, Dr Javed Ghani had told him that just 500 of the total 3,500 IT professionals produced in the province annually would be acceptable to the top local software houses or IT companies of repute. The situation here in Karachi is no different as the majority of mushrooming IT institutes are established on dishonesty aimed only at making quick money without making any efforts whatsoever to ensure impart relevant education and training.

The University Grants Commission is doing nothing to check this moral dishonesty and is interested only in granting No Objection Certificates to these IT institutions, including many who are conveniently defrauding thousands of students of having fake foreign affiliations. This is a big fraud perpetrated on the people and it has to be stopped, he added.

He said these institutes makes all sorts of promises which are never kept. "That explains the thousands of people with all sorts of degrees from these institutions who cannot find a job of even Rs 5,000 compared to the promise of Rs 25,000-50,000. 'After spending hundreds of thousands of rupees, years of time, loads of energy and promises of lucrative careers they ultimately find out that their hard-earned skills are not able to provide half-decent living, and in many cases only the unemployment, to them to the extreme discomfort of their retired or near-retirement parents. I personally know many such cases where a father spent his life savings to on his son's Computer Science degree from one such institute which promised a lucrative job after the completion of the programme. The boy was unable to find even a job of 'Rs 5,000 per month,' he added.

While these fake foreign affiliated IT institutes keep on flourishing across the country motivated solely by greed the institutions such as FAST which has a proven track record to strengthen the backbone of the local IT industry is continued to be treated on purely commercial entity, Dr Qureshi said. It had to buy land on commercial rates to develop a purpose-built premises and is charged commercial power and utility rates. However, he enthusiastically welcomed the reduction in the income tax of professional IT faculty by half in the Budget 2000-2001.

Dr Qureshi stressed the need for going beyond imparting the operational knowledge as a quick means to make quick money by thousands of IT institutes across the country. Instead, he called for imparting highly technical knowledge to produce quality Computer Science graduates to usher in the real IT revolution in the country. 'Understanding the problem is not enough and while policies do serve a purpose, the effective implementation is the only answer to solve our IT woes,' he added.

The local software industry, he said, should no more be complacent to remain a little more than a cottage industry to restrict and limit its real potential. Measures should be taken to retrain professionals in various fields IT-literate on the fast-track basis and the government should only consult the institutes which have a track record for the imparting quality IT training in the country, he added.

He asked the government to lend support to the pioneer institutes like FAST which is producing a sizeable number of highly technically qualified Computer Science professionals who form the backbone of any software industry and commands top demand in the international markets compared to a huge non-specialised IT force by hundreds of institutes of all types and sizes in the country. Extending governmental support to these institutions which have no track record and being run purely on commercial basis with total disregard whether the training they are imparting have any relevance to today's job market would not help develop the hi-tech professionals that the country needs, he added.

KASB Institute of Technology (KASBIT)

Khadim Ali Shah Bukhari is one of the oldest and the leading trading and brokerage houses of Pakistan. It has recently launched an IT training institute at a purpose-built campus on the main Shahrah-e-Faisal. KASBIT has plans to establish nine more campuses in other cities of the country aimed at filling the huge gap between supply and demand of skilled IT professionals by providing quality IT education. At present, KASBIT is offering 3-year degree programmes in three disciplines Bachelors in Computer Science (BCS) Honors , Bachelors in Business Information Technology (BBIT), and the firstever Bachelors in Electronic Commerce (BECom) in the country. There are separate faculties for each of these three disciplines. It also offers two-year postgraduate programmes MCS, MCS (Modular Programme), MBIT and MECom. It has plans to offer a three-month Executive Education programme and one-year Postgraduate diplomas in simulation and modeling, Finite Elements, IT, and online education in future.

PAGE talked to the Head of Academics Dr Tasneem M. Shah and Chief Executive Officer Mohammed Saleem of KASBIT. They said that one of the major objective of KASBIT is to produce quality IT entrepreneurs rather than producing IT professionals. Expressing concerns about the shortage of quality IT professionals Saleem said that it is so acute that there are not even 100 quality computer science professionals available in the country not to talk of Ph.D. whose numbers are not even in double-digits.

He also expressed concerns at the absence of even attempts to establish academic and R&D platforms. He stressed that the local software houses should invest 10 per cent of their profit for R&D for the collective good of the industry. A similar contribution should be made by the private sector to help give the local IT industry a boost to produce quality professionals and to offer better pay to help attract much needed quality faculty to impart hi-tech knowledge, he added.

Saleem stressed that the private sector should play a more important role in terms of investment to establish quality computer science and IT education institutes which though a long-drawn business pays dividends for the overall benefit of the country. He also called for the establishment of private sector based platform for the establishment of private universities to help fill the big gap between supply and demand of the quality IT entrepreneurs. He also favoured a joint syllabus developed by the IT institutes in the private sector to impart training which meets the demands of today's job market.

Dr Tasneem said that it is imperative that measures should be taken to ensure the retraining of all degree holders in the country to help develop a skilled IT manpower on the fast track basis. For its part, KASBIT intends to start just such an eighteen-month programme to convert graduates an IT professionals in their own disciplines no matter whether its science, commerce, medicine or engineering. It is sad that MBBS doctors are being hired by the software companies as data entry operators to cipher foreign information for as low a monthly salary as Rs 4,000 per month. Retraining such highly qualified professionals as doctors and engineers, which numbers tens of thousands, would not only help them become IT trained in their particular profession but will also help narrow the huge gap between supply and demand of IT professionals in the country, he added.

He further said that despite the mushroom growth of IT institutes in the country; many of which are housed in one- or two-room premises offering an array of certificates, diplomas and degrees in programmes which has no job relevance today, the number of quality institutes can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He said that it's time to regulate the IT education and it is imperative to collect the data about the IT education and institutes to initiate calculated planning about what types of professionals are needed and where?

APTECH WORLDWIDE

Dr Junaid Ahmad is the Master Business Partner of Aptech Worldwide, a US-origin computer training Corporation with 1,500 centres in 32 countries including a strong presence in Asia. Presently it operates three offices in Pakistan two in Karachi and one in Lahore. It is in the process of adding six more centres by October this year four more in Karachi, a second in Lahore and the first centre in Sialkot and six new centres by end this year to bring the total to 15. It plans to establish another 25 centres by end next year to increase the numbers of its centres to total 40 and another 60 by end 2002 to bring the numbers to a total of 100.

Explaining the need for establishing such a wide network of the franchised IT training centres in Pakistan, Dr Junaid said that Aptech is purely a market-driven organisation aiming to fill the tremendous gap between supply and demand of IT professionals internationally. Some 800,000 IT related jobs are created in the US alone annually. Whereas USA can produce only a maximum of 350,000 professionals. The US is thus not able to fill the balance 450,000 jobs which make it look to find people from other countries. In addition to that UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, many countries in Europe and Far East are looking for IT professionals. 'In my opinion the total demand of IT professionals in the world is about 1.6 million jobs annually of which between 900,000 to a million remain unfilled which is creating a situation of a tremendous demand-supply gap."

He said that South Asian countries India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and in that order are the only countries in the world which have Anglo-Saxon traditions and English language proficiency. Now computer is an Anglo-Saxon and English-speaking devise and so South Asia is the only region of the world today which can fill this huge demand for IT jobs. There is no other region or any country which can benefit for such inherent advantages as many other English-speaking countries like the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand have all short supply. "So in my opinion the South Asian region is today sitting at boom situation similar to that of oil boom in the Middle East in the late 1960s and we have to ready ourselves for this situation. The only difference is that you had to ready yourself than to dig oil wells while here we have to produce more IT manpower. This is the basic reason Aptech decided to come to Pakistan and plans to establish 100 training centres across the country by end 2002."

In addition, Dr Junaid said, Aptech has a vision to help Pakistan achieve a billion dollar software exports in the shortest possible time. "In order to achieve this target we need at least 120,000 quality IT person to sustain that size of software export volumes. Presently, Pakistan is producing no more than 2,500-3,000 quality IT professionals every year and because of this tremendous shortage we are not able to achieve the kind of software export volumes that we want to. In comparison, India is producing some 110,000 IT professionals annually and that too for the last 15 fifteen years. It has a critical mass available of 1.5 million IT professionals to enable it to export $ 4 billion of software through official channels and another $ 4 billion through unofficial channels. It is targeting $ 100 billion of software exports in next five years and I think it will achieve it. That is basically we are looking at and it's our vision to help produce that kind of quality IT workforce here in Pakistan," he added.

Junaid said that even the 100 training centres which Aptech is planning to establish across the country in next 30 months will help produce only 50,000 IT professionals compared to the required 120,000 as mentioned earlier. "So while Aptech will do its bit we are expecting the government and everybody else to chip in to help produce the required number of IT professionals otherwise the much talked about IT revolution will never take place in the country," he added.

Dr Junaid said that Aptech offers a very comprehensive programme called ACCP (Aptech Certified Computer Professional). The 3-year software engineering programme offers specialisation in one of three IT tracks- MCSD, e-commerce and networking. The students work on the latest tools available in the market today be it visual programming (C++, C, visual C or VB.6) or Java, Java scripts, Java beans, Java Developer, Oracle, etc.

It also offers a six-month ADSET 2000 (Advance Diploma in Software Export Technologies) which is meant to convert engineers into IT professionals (particularly for the unemployed and under-employed engineers). The highly intensive course provides 1,200 teaching hours- 600 in the class room and another 600 hours of hands-on practical work. The 6-month crash course provides training which otherwise is normally imparted over a period of two years to help produce quality IT engineers on a fast track basis in the country. The programme is fully backed by a job guarantee by the Aptech.

Junaid told PAGE that Aptech is in the process of launching a 6-month e-commerce programme which is also very intensive and is particularly meant for the people with the background in business BBA, MBA, BCom, MCom, Chartered and Cost Accountants. It will help these professionals convert into e-commerce specialists. In addition, Aptech has over 200 short courses of one-day to six-months for the corporate training which it plans to launch next year.

Aptech which opened in January this year has a total enrollment of 700 plus students at its three existing centres and the enrollment is increasing by about 200 new entries every month. It expects to have 2000 plus students by end this year when the total number of centres will increase to 15 in the country.

Dr Juanid said the majority of 1,500 IT institutes across the country are offering courses which have little or no relevance in the IT market of today primarily because they run on different level of technology and support. An overwhelming number of these institutes are teaching courses such as DOS, Lotus, Wordstar, WordPerfect, Symphony and Windows '95, which have no market anymore. They don't teach anything about data bases, object oriented planning and programming, visual programming so there is a problem. A lot of students are coming out after spending huge amounts of money on these courses only to get a shock that their training has no value in the job market of today which is a great waste of money, time and energy. He welcomed the recently announced IT policy which calls for the establishment of a National Testing and Accreditation Service aimed at ensuring the quality of IT education and training in the country.

He agreed with software companies about the dearth of quality IT professionals. "This is a problem as the software industry is looking for expertise in Java and we don't have expertise in Java, it is looking for expertise in Oracle and we don't have expertise in Oracle, it is looking for expertise in visual programming and we don't have that. It's time to take of a stock of the situation to understand the demands of the today's IT market to impart the kind of education and training which is relevant and Aptech has chosen to play just that role," he concluded.

Hamdard Institute of IT

Hamdrad Institute of Information Technology is a part of Hamdard University which offers Bachelor of Engineering degree in IT and Electronics; Bachelor of Science in Software Development, and M.S. degree in IT. PAGE talked Professor M. Wali Khan Durrani, the CEO of Hamdard University City Campuses, the venue of the above programmes.

Professor Durrani expressed serious concerns about the lack of direction of the local IT education the foremost being its inability to decide what should be taught and why? 'We are yet adamant to call IT a discipline rather than calling what it really is- a sector and we have not yet been able to decide what are its relevance and what are its uses and where and how much. We fail to realise that any information in any sector is only helpful if it is correct and is delivered timely. We are far behind, nay failed, to develop the statistics sector, the precursor of IT, to help provide the base needed to develop the IT structure. Look at the computerised utility bills the correction of which requires the copy of previous bills primarily due to absence of data bases. Is this computerisation," he asked.

He was also very vocal about the shortage of quality faculty which are not available 'at any price and who has make it a habit to demand excessively high remuneration to exploit the situation to their fullest financial advantage.' Calling the concept of 'visiting faculty' basically a dishonest concept here in Pakistan a form of 'over working' and 'door-to-door selling' which is motivated primarily by desire to make money.

He was also much critical of the advantages of imparting IT knowledge in Pakistan in the absence of lack of its applications. "True," he said, " that there is demand for it outside the country but the kind of IT education imparted here in the country can only help us export these professionals may be just once but will we have repeat orders," he asked.

He said that we have yet not been able to achieve the basic minimum standard of IT education in the country- 85 per cent of school students in the US have access to Internet while here even one per cent of school students don't have an Internet access. 'In addition, 80 per cent of all computer hardware in Pakistan is used for such basic function as word processing. We don't yet know how many trained IT manpower we need and how many in any particular sector and still remain oblivious to the basic minimum standard," he added.

He also talked about 'bhair chal- blind following' whereby every single student of thousands of high schools across the country wants to do Bachelors in Computer Science. " We forget to realise that IT is a service like many others which supplements disciplines in all other knowledge be it Physics, Electronics, Mathematics, Engineering, Medicine. We don't realise that IT is basically a language like all other professional disciplines which needs quality expertise. Bill Gates did not even finish his high school. Does that mean anything," he asked.

He said that as a society and a nation we have become accustomed to look for short cuts. In the late 1960s we untiringly used to talk about oil, now we have discovered 'IT.' The IT alone will not help us unless we know how to use it for our advantage. It will not help us as we have to know where the cheapest 'chick peas' in the world are available, how many crops of this eatable is produced a year by farmers in other countries. Are we using the immense data available on the net for our advantage? Perhaps not."

He stressed on the need to change the education structure in the country which still reeks of outdated knowledge and obsolete technology. "The single entry accounting system was abolished in the US 98 years ago but it is still in use here. Intellectual dishonesty like insider trading and information go on unabated at the stock exchanges in the country.

"We should not take IT training alone but rather use it as a means to help supplement the disciplines in which we already excel. IT should be seen as the means to upgrade all other skills, trade and vocations," he concluded.