Now that the debate on whether to devolve or dissolve or d-something HEC has –at least for the time being — ended, it is time to go back to the fundamental challenges facing Pakistan in higher education and look for some answer. To me, the fundamental challenge facing Pakistan is simply this: 95% of college-age population is out of institutions for higher education, and therefore, without marketable skills in the 21st century.
How to bring this number down and create a skilled workforce is no small challenge. And, the fact that higher education in high-value fields like engineering and medicine is fairly expensive makes the problem even harder. University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, one of the premier public-sector engineering schools in the country, spends roughly Rs. 200,000 per student per year (not including the cost of developing new infrastructure for future expansion). Add to that the cost of living that is usually borne by the student himself or herself, and the price tag of producing one engineer runs well over a million rupees. Multiply that with the need to produce tens of thousands of engineers and scientists to keep pace with developing countries like Turkey, Brazil, India and China, and it is easy to see how daunting the math simply is. To illustrate the point, Chinese universities graduate roughly 350,000 engineers each year. If we were to aim at producing 50,000 engineers at the cost of Rs. 0.25 million each (borne by the state), it would add up to Rs. 12.5 billion just to run the engineering programs nation-wide. The entire budget allocation for HEC for the fiscal year 2011-12 is Rs. 14 billion.
The important question, which to my view is not getting enough attention, then is this: How do we create a system where we are able to train tens of thousands of engineers every year without going deeper into debt? And, perhaps more importantly, how to do we create a system where the engineers our universities produce are job-ready? Because, after 16 years of education, if it takes an engineer another two years (or more) to add value to the society, it simply adds to the burden.
A one-of-a-kind experiential education program in the Iron Range region in northeastern Minnesota in the United States offers an worthy model. The Iron Range region is rich in multiple distinct bands of iron ore, and houses mining, paper, and energy industry. Faced with the challenge of finding engineers who are ready and willing to work in the local industry, a consortium of local businesses and universities have banded together to design a unique engineering programmed called Iron Range Engineering (IRE).
IRE is an upper division engineering program (3rd and 4th years). Students graduate with a B.S. in Engineering, with an emphasis of their choice (e.g., Mechanical Engineering) from Minnesota State University. Students join the Iron Range Engineering program after spending two years taking foundational courses in maths, programming, and engineering sciences at area community colleges or other universities. Specifically, the program requires that incoming students complete 51 credits, including the following courses:
General Physics (calculus-based), 10 credits
Calculus and Differential Equations, 16 credits
Introduction to Engineering, 2 credits
Engineering Mechanics (Statics & Dynamics), 6 credits
Electrical Engineering (Circuits, including lab), 4 credits
Chemistry, 5 credits
English Composition, 4 credits
Computer Graphics Communication, 1 credit
Geometric Dimensioning & Tolerancing, 1 credit
Introduction to Problem Solving and Engineering Design, 2 credits
The distinguishing feature of that program is that at IRE, students do not take any classes. They spend 20 hours per week working on projects at local manufacturing plants under the direction of practicing engineers. The remaining 20 hours per week are devoted to learning engineering theory and discussing its application with the faculty. As a result, students and faculty spend a tremendous amount of time interacting on the learning of the technical knowledge, the professional skills, and design processes. This unique method of instruction completes them as engineers, while keeping them firmly grounded in the context of the local manufacturing industry.
Students in the program blog about their experience on irengineering.blogspot.com. Their posts provides a window into the program and what kind of projects the students are engaged in. For example, on April 7, a student blogged:
After multiple meetings with the engineers and mechanics, we have narrowed our design down to hydraulics. The team has been working to complete two different mounting designs for the hydraulic system for installation. When the designs are finished and our price estimates are complete, we will then present our final work to Hibbing Taconite. We are nearing completion, even though we planned on having our final deliverable done by Friday, April 15th. We set our finish date early so that if we ran into issues or had delays, we could still finish before the end of the semester. Also, we set our end date sooner so that Hibbing Taconite could install the lift system as soon as possible because they are ready to get it installed
Iron Range Engineering is a program in its infancy. Started in 2009, there are currently only 25 students in the program with the first graduates expected in December, 2011. So, it may be a while before we can judge the success of the program. But, that does not mean we cannot learn from it and build from its example.
A program like IRE offers several unique benefits in the context of our own education system:
- First, by allowing students to take foundational courses at local colleges, instead of national universities which are concentrated in major metropolitan cities, the cost of both tuition and lodging can be reduced significantly for students in rural areas or residing outside major metropolitan cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Karachi. In addition to lowering the financial cost for families outside major cities, this option can be especially attractive for girls whose parents might be reluctant to send them to major cities at a young age.
- Second, by teaming up students with professionals in the industry, the time spent in the engineering program contributes directly to job-readiness of the students. Since students have access to the faculty at the university during this time, they are not reliant entirely on their industry mentors for help and guidance in technical matters. In other words, it allows industry to off-load part of employee training to the university.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a program like the IRE creates a true symbiotic relationship between the local industry and the academia. The industry benefits mainly by having a ready supply of qualified engineers who can not only meet the technical needs, but are also familiar with the work environment. And, the academia benefits by offering the faculty an organic collaborative relationship with the industry — a true win-win for both sides, and especially for the students.
It may be that IRE model is an idea far too radical, and far too demanding to work in Pakistan. Many times, when it comes to education policy, what appears like a sound idea on paper does not translate well in the real world. So may be the case with IRE. My point, however is that the cost of traditional higher education is simply far too great on the individual and the societal level to work for a populous and debt-ridden country like Pakistan. We have no choice but to think of creative ways to leverage precious resources to benefit the greatest number of students. The traditional four-year programs offered at our top engineering universities like the UET Lahore, NUST SEECS, and LUMS SSE simply cannot be scaled to large enough a number. We have to come to terms with this basic reality, and chart a different course rather than try to replicate the same model of education but with inferior resources.