GROWTH OF IT EDUCATION IN PAKISTAN
The recommendations in the IT Action Plan significantly broaden and deepen the process of economic reforms by encouraging competition, entrepreneurship and innovation.
By Dr. S.M. Junaid Zaidi & Tahir Naeem
Sep 24 - 30, 2001
Recognizing the fact that like other developing countries and the economies in transition, Pakistan has in general the opportunity to leapfrog by acquiring Information Technology (IT), the IT Policy and Action Plan was announced by the Government of Pakistan back in Aug. 2000. It aims at universalizing IT and IT based education at all levels of the education pyramid. The concern for upgrading the human resources is at the heart of the initiative. A notable feature of the Policy provisions is the conscious effort of the Government to build necessary infrastructure and provide institutional support including the human skills to give IT a pro-people thrust. These recommendations flow from a perspective that Pakistan can become a strong IT power only if IT reaches out to the masses.
Notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan is the 7th most populace country in the world, stands at 147th place in the literacy rate, 128th place as per the Human Development Index and 132nd position on GDP per capita basis among a total of 160 nations, the advent of IT euphoria has taken over the policy makers and masses alike. Planners aspire instilling an IT revolution comparable in size and quality to the best in the world. Does it come naturally? Certainly not!
In order to further deliberate on the issues, let's try to refresh some of the facts:
In software export market of US$ 315 billion; Pakistan's share was something close to US$ 100 million in the previous year. In contrast, her neighbour India is the 2nd largest exporter of software in the world with exports valuing over US$ 8 billion.
In order to tap a respectable share keeping in view the size and resources, the experts aspire for a target of $400 million of software exports by 2003.
In order to meet dictates of the domestic and export market a workforce of nearly 30,000 IT professionals will be required by the year 2003.
Producing 30,000 IT professionals requires about 3000 qualified teachers immediately.
Another 3000 professionals with project management experience will be required (who could be MBAs with specialized training in management of IT projects).
About 30,000 students took short courses leading to a diploma or certificate. Of those enrolled in such short courses about half took courses on office applications and thus are being trained for office work rather than as IT professionals.
Allowing for the available strength of 9000 BCS and MCS graduates, annual targets include production of about 2,000 quality MCS graduates and 5,000 quality BCS graduates each year until 2003. Another, 30,000 diploma, certificate holders will also be required to work as the so-called blue collar knowledge workers.
The supply of IT manpower has picked up pace and shows high growth rates (over 50 per cent a year) as the private sector has responded rapidly to the high social demand for IT education.
The key problem though, is not matching supply with demand, but the quality of manpower being produced. According to software houses, only 10 per cent of BCS/ MCS graduates are of the quality required for export projects.
The proliferation of colleges offering degrees and certificate courses has resulted in large variations in curricula.
In order to take up the challenge and as part of a comprehensive master plan for manpower development, an aggressive program to upgrade IT education at various levels has been undertaken by the Government under the auspices of IT Policy and Action Plan.
Training of 'Data Entry Operators' was initiated in the middle of 2000. In its first three phases, nearly 8000 youth have been given the training. This number will reach 10,000 after completion of the on going fourth phase. Similarly, IT trainings in office applications have been given to 5000 Federal Government employees.
In order to target the lucrative software export markets, specialized training in Medical Transcription and Java have been initiated. A total of 764 trainees have successfully completed training as Medical Transcriptionists, which include 183 Quality Controllers and 581 operators. A total of 844 students at two levels (intermediate and advanced) have been enrolled and approx. 1000 more will be trained in the subsequent phase of the programme.
Over 200 institutions including the 26 recognized universities have started programs, inter alia, leading to Bachelors, Master and PhD studies. Bright student have also been afforded financial assistance through awarding scholarships and teaching associate ship.
The biggest challenge currently being faced by the planners is the shortage of trained faculty who can undertake the gigantic task of training enough people for the upcoming job market. The problem is compounded with most graduates of the first tier universities in the country opting to settle abroad for better financial returns. An informal assessment reveals that graduates of second or third tier universities have, in fact, presently taken over a major share of teaching in IT discipline. Efforts have been initiated to simultaneously undertake programs in the short, medium and long term to ensure a steady flow of quality faculty in selected areas of IT. Prominent national universities have been asked and have started programs leading to certificate, Masters and PhD degrees with active financial support being provided by the Government.
Setting up of the Virtual University is one step forward in extending the frontiers of quality education to the general masses. The key point is that the increased access to information must not leave pockets of population marginalized. As for example, Virtual University is envisaged to extend IT education opportunity to girls who can otherwise, not undertake higher professional studies due to social and cultural taboos on female mobility.
Another factor that affects quality of IT education in the country is the proliferation of standards. The problems arising from the multiplicity or more precisely lack of standards are compounded by the rapid rate of technical obsolescence involved in support services. The options for standardization of IT education in particular are under serious consideration of the Government. In order to ensure high quality training the Accreditation Council has been constituted. The Accreditation Council will, inter alia, collect data on training institutions, rate them as well take steps to strengthen existing IT training institutions by encouraging them to upgrade curricula, introduce new technologies through establishing linkages with global IT firms, develop local faculties and will provide scholarships to students.
A worrying fact is that while we try to match supply with anticipated demand keeping in view the expected growth in the export market, little emphasis is placed in adopting IT applications at home. There is probably no time now to ask students' fill-in the forms in triplicate or see people having computers at their desktops and frustrating themselves with manually managing petty accounts. The IT ecstasy has yet to invade the economic mainstream in agriculture, industry, trade, services or even the education itself. It needs to be remembered that we cannot support a sizeable export market without having a culture that values and engross IT in its day-to-day affairs.
Summing up, major issues confronting realization of success of such an initiative include the following:
Appropriate curriculum development;
Developing and disseminating effective practices of learning and teaching IT;
Student scholarship and financial aid;
Identifying components and putting in place the IT infrastructure;
Quality assurance through monitoring and accreditation system;
Market linkages through internships, projects, placement service, IT applications, etc.
Taken together, the recommendations in the IT Action Plan significant broaden and deepen the process of economic reforms by encouraging competition, entrepreneurship and innovation the three principles which are cardinal for the country's progress in the emerging knowledge-driven global economy. With enough support extended by the Government it is time for the private sector to come out and help realize the dream of a prosperous Pakistan having a recognizable presence in the international IT arena.
*Respectively Rector & Project Manager, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan.