An exclusive interview with Mr Abul Kalam, Vice Chancellor, NED University of Engineering & Technology

KHALIL AHMED, Senior Correspondent
Dec 25 - 31, 2006

PAGE: Please tell us something about yourself?

A. KALAM: There is really not much worth talking about myself; subjective remarks are in any case unlikely to interest anyone else. It is enough to say that I spent 42 years in Railways service - including deputations to several other departments - beginning as an Officer Apprentice on the Indian Railways in 1941 and retiring as Secretary Pakistan Railways in 1983. More details are available in my book "Recollections of a Railwayman". I joined NED University in December 1996.

PAGE: How long has NED been serving the nation?

A. KALAM: The NED University is the oldest institution in what is now left of Pakistan for teaching and training graduate engineers. It was started as the NED University College in 1922; its objective at that time being primarily to train engineers for what is now the Sukkur Barrage. The initials NED are of Nadershaw Edulji Dinshaw who had been the largest contributor for the funds needed to build the college and make it functional. It was shifted to its present location with World Bank funding in 1975 and raised to university status in 1977. The old college which since 1997 has been declared as one of the Heritage buildings of Karachi is now the City Campus which houses the entire Architecture Department. One more campus of nearly 6412 square yards was donated in 2005 to the NED University - adjacent to the Liaquat National Hospital; that now houses the Bio-Engineering and Medical Engineering disciplines.

PAGE: Could you please brief us about the achievements of NED University's faculty members and graduates at national and international level?

A. KALAM: The NED University has been fortunate in that its students have almost invariably been among the very best in our country; it is to them rather than to anyone else that the NED University has been able to establish its reputation not only in Pakistan but also abroad. Our admissions being based exclusively on merit i.e. excluding only one and one-half percent for children of engineers and of university employees, performance of our graduates as professional engineers has established their reputation not only in Pakistan but anywhere they have worked. Admittedly, the NED University has not yet been able to do much in the way of postgraduate work and/or research because it was deliberately deprived of opportunities for development of infrastructure for research. The University Grants Commission, established in 1974, was blatantly political in its outlook; the NED University was deliberately starved of development funding - so much so that in early 1996, the federal government deliberately cancelled the sanctioned development project of NED University - that too only for the relatively small amount of under 100 million rupees even after it had been sanctioned by the National Economic Council. This Grant could be restored one year later only after the change of government! It is only after the HEC came into existence in 2002 that liberal development funding has been made available to the NED University. Since the year 2000 the NED University also launched its Ph.D. programme exclusively for its own faculty; even now it is concentrating on getting all its faculty members to improve their qualifications and providing facilities and HEC scholarships to fulfil this objective.

PAGE: Could you tell us briefly about each department of NED?

A. KALAM: The NED had only four departments in 1996-97 i.e. Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Systems; now there are 17 and this number would increase to 20 by 2008-2009 on the basis of the development programme which is being implemented in stages. These departments would be

Metallurgical Engineering
Petrochemical and Polymer Engineering
Marine Engineering
Also Environmental Engineering only at Postgraduate level bringing total to 21.

Describing each department in detail will not serve any useful purpose; it would instead be worthwhile for persons to visit the university and see for themselves the new departments being established. The objective of increasing the number of disciplines - each department generally concentrates on only one or at most two disciplines - is to meet the demands of prospective employers whose number is increasing with the development of economy. To limited extent, this also caters to increasing demand abroad - the top 15% of our graduates are able to compete with any university abroad or the IITs of India in seeking employment as engineers. While saying that, it must be emphasised that this university only claims equality with foreign institutions in respect of the abilities of its Bachelor and Master's degree holders; it still has much leeway to make up in respect of its research capability and doctorate qualifications.

PAGE: How would you comment on the recent HEC university ranking?

A. KALAM: It has already been indicated that the NED University would not like to enter into controversy about university ranking. This university has always maintained from the very outset that nowhere in the world is the funding agency in any country ever allowed to rank universities; the NED University never supplied any data for this purpose. This point has been repeated several times to the Higher Education Commission.

PAGE: How many students are enrolled in NED at present? Do you think that our local market will be able to employ all engineers?

A. KALAM: Enrolment in the NED University on 30th September 2006 was 4276 Undergraduate and 1219 Postgraduate. Under the development programme these figures are likely to increase by about 40% in 2008-2009. All our Bachelor degree holders do not get employed only in the local market; 10 to 15% almost invariably go abroad either for higher studies or for employment; the remainder however have no difficulty finding employment within the country.

PAGE: Would you brief us about the future degree programmes which NED is intending to launch?

A. KALAM: Besides undergraduate degrees in the discipline taught by each department, every department also offers several Postgraduate degrees because at the postgraduate level there are various opportunities for interdisciplinary studies which are neither possible nor even desirable at the Undergraduate level. After the Postgraduate level i.e. Master's degree comes the pure research degree; the Doctorate being possible only if adequate supervision in the form of experienced faculty with doctorate qualifications in the same and/or allied fields of expertise are also available.

PAGE: Do you think that the launch of nine new engineering universities in the country will leave a kind of negative impact on our existing engineering universities?

A. KALAM: It is too early to talk about what the nine new engineering universities run by foreigners would be able to accomplish. One thing is certain, that the fees that they would charge would be beyond the reach of most Pakistani students. Even now fees charged by NED are barely one sixth of what is charged by one private engineering university in Karachi and hardly more than one-fifteenth of what is charged by one private university in Lahore. Yet the NED University is still managing reasonably well and the quality of its Bachelor and Master degree holders is as good if not better than in these other universities.

PAGE: Engineering and heavy industry are contributing at least $600 billion dollars to the world economy? What should our government do to promote engineering education?

A. KALAM: The government has done very well in setting up the Higher Education Commission which in turn has favoured all universities - including the NED University - with liberal funding; the only condition virtually imposed is that the money should be usefully spent as soon as possible. However, the administrative mechanism of the HEC is weak because it deals with all universities both general and professional simultaneously and in the same way. The performance and results achieved by HEC would be far better if only they dealt with professional and general universities separately and differently because their requirements are entirely different. In general universities, Postgraduate work is never less than 70%; in professional universities it can never exceed 15%. The latter need entirely different handling; without under emphasising the importance of research; it must also be stressed that in professional universities teaching takes up about 80% of faculty time whereas in general universities it never exceeds 25%.

PAGE: There is a significant increase of 35 universities during the period 2001-02 to 2004- 05, including 13 new public and 22 new private universities. What kind of programmes do you see these and upcoming universities would have? The preference would be business, engineering or information technology education. Please comment.

A. KALAM: I do not feel competent to forecast this; my experience has been almost entirely in engineering. However, it can be said here that information technology is not an end in itself; it is literally the sophisticated tool which will be useful in almost every branch of learning.

PAGE: A word of advice for the youngsters.

A. KALAM: I do not believe in offering advice to youngsters. After talking to any group of students, I end up inviting questions. That is more interesting and useful than trying to offer advice.