INTERVIEW
ECONOMIC UTILITY OF IT EDUCATION

TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI (tariqsaeedi@hotmail.com)
Nov 09 - 15, 2009

Shifting attention to engineering sector in the agriculture dependent economy is albeit unwelcome-it is frequently seen as an attempt of neglecting the agriculture sector-has been helpful in multiplying the growth in number of agrarian economies. China and India can be cited as examples, which are taking advantages of synergies of automation and traditional business processes. The point on which this attention should be focussed at first is obviously human resource that is an essential factor of production.

Specifically, attention on developing human resources for enhancing productivity of economic activities through information and communication technology education can be result oriented. Critics say idea of information technology education has proved a flop in Pakistan and a wave of IT education institutions has not catalysed the economic productivity through producing talents and application of knowledge in last two decades of government's attention and support. The fault of not doing so lies on the education institutions making IT experts. Does this signify that education of information and technology is vain?

With this central point, Page has recently interviewed Dr. S. M. Aqil Burney who has over 30 years of teaching experience and many local and international accolades in the field of information and computational technology. Director Umaer Basha Institute of Technology (UBIT), University of Karachi, he completed doctorate of philosophy (PhD) with specialization in stochastic models of insurance business from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, UK in 1987. Notably, IEEE computer society, an internationally acclaimed journal, has cited a paper-a combined effort of him and Dr. Tahseen Ahmed Jilani-proposing a method to discriminate different financial strength credit rating classifications of Moody's, Standard and Poors, and other financial institutions from one another.

According to Dr. Burney, the field of information technology is an ever changing and to maintain pace with the dynamics is a challenging task. 'But to say that we should withdraw from this race is preposterous. There is a need of teaching computer sciences now than it was a decade ago to overcome the current socio-economic challenges facing Pakistan.'

For last three to four years, IT infrastructure has been upgraded largely. World is recognizing IT manpower of Pakistan, he said. This reflected in the publication of our papers in Springer, Elsevier, and IEEE, he added. Computer sciences graduates are working on projects with Microsoft and IBM, he said referring to graduates from Karachi University. I accept, he said, the injection of IT educational contribution is slow when compared to the progress of IT sectors in India for instance, however, 'we must look to positive sides as well'. He said students of computer sciences in KU during their education had started works on projects with software houses and they earned money. Likewise, they monetise their theses and applications right in the middle of their study. 'This is basically economic utility of IT education.' We are looking for partnership with industries to transfer the knowledge in the market, he underscored.

'Promoting entrepreneurship is our focussed area. Especially, we want female students to begin work independently and enhance their contribution to the economy and the society.' Dr. Burney is of the view that prosperity of society must be a priority. "Therefore, it is knowledge-based society instead of knowledge-based economy we must target."

He believed one should not always see the immediate economic benefits. Study the economic models of IT-based countries and you will find that they acquired ability to produce quality IT products (workforce and other resources) after decades of hard work, he remarked.

He seems to be a determinist who does not cover up mistakes with excuses. Even though, he pointed at some impediments, which he observed, were responsible for slowly appearing beneficial outcomes of the IT education. There is a lack of political will to upgrade education sector in the country, he strongly believed. 'The intellectual deficit in the country is also fallout of debacle of division of East from West Pakistan. We seek excuses.' Brain drain is another prime cause of inadequate knowledge transfer from institutions to the society. The graduates tend to emigrate from Pakistan because they get better remunerations in foreign countries. Since the inception of computer sciences department at university of Karachi in 1986, the department has produced less than ten PhDs. Dr. Burney is the only supervisor. There is a shortage of faculty members. The response of university graduates to vacancy in the faculty is poor. For Dr. Burney, it is an indicator that absorption rate of graduates in the market is high. In the same rhyme, however he said incentives to staff should be increased. Lack of incentives is another important determinant of quality of education.

To make students stand competitive in global virtual interaction age demands dissemination of borderless applicable knowledge. That alone can create employable graduates. Public-funded Karachi University is repository of higher learning catering to a large portion of the society. Per capita expenditures on students in public sector universities are generally less than that in private sector universities, which can pay better salaries to their staff. Dr. Burney agreed that there was an issue of channelization of funds to right place.

Recently, computer sciences department was shifted to a new complex named UBIT with a covered area of 21,000 sq. ft. Apart from Rs10 million donated for the building, according to Dr. Burney, the actual cost would be more than this amount. The purpose of constructing the magnificent edifice was to turn the institute in to a commercial entity. Fortunately, this has not happened and instead the courses offered in the institute are priced in conformity with the price structures of public-sector universities, said he. The amount on construction could have been spent on other developments, he consented. "In UBIT, we spend seven to eight million rupees per annum on laboratories, scientific equipments, teaching aids, etc. There is a pool of 180 million rupees earmarked by the government. Every year, we purchase Rs10 to 15 lacs books and publications."

Under the Moore's law, that says transformation in computer sciences occurs every 18 months, we revise and update curricula of all degree and diploma programmes within the stipulated timeframe, he said. He was sure that curricula were at par with international standards. Right now, UBIT has 1500 students in both morning and evening. When Dr. Burney took hold of chair back in 1994, total number of students was 75. A triangle of honesty, knowledge, and management is a key to success, he concluded.