Paradigm sift in science and engineering education

Written By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Mujahid

It was only a year after I came back from Singapore to join the Institute of Space Technology in Islamabad on the Foreign Faculty program of HEC that I was invited to attend the first ever brain-storming session of the grand Universities of Engineering Sciences and Technology Pakistan (UESTP) project. The idea was based on realizing the goal of providing “education with employment”. The project concept was sculpted to establish high quality institutions of science and technology with technical assistance of internationally renowned universities of advanced countries. To realize the education with employment objective, it was decided to build sizeable technology parks within these institutions. These parks would host innovative technology startups, industrial R&D facilities, and pilot scale production units; a proven model with very high success rate that exists in Europe, China, India, etc.

These parks create an echo system to promote the triple helix model that creates synergy between academia, industry, and government. It also stimulates linkage of students/faculty with industry resulting in value addition of industrial products through innovation and disruptive technologies. The ripple effect is creation of high-value jobs for the graduates and opportunities of technology-startups for the budding entrepreneurs.

Out of the 9 UESTP projects 4 were approved by ECNEC to be established in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi in collaboration with Germany, France, Austria and China. MS programs in all these UESTP were ready to be implemented in 2009, in temporary campuses, while the land for actual campuses was bought and the campus masterplans complete with building drawings was ready for execution.

The whole program was frozen and later shelved as Dr Atta was edged out of HEC by the newly elected government in 2008.

It was Dr Atta’s perseverance that he kept on stressing the need for setting up technology institutions of world standards and managed to convince the KPK government in 2016 to embark upon such an endeavor. It was decided to build an institution with a hybrid model, i.e. a Fachhochschule for applied engineering/technology programs plus research centers for advanced applied research. Through his very strong links with Austria, Dr Atta managed to bring FH Joanneum Graz and MCI Innsbruck as foreign partners – and thus the Pak-Austria Fachhochschule: Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (PAF-IAST) was born. Both the partners agreed to offer joint Fachhochschule degree programs at the bachelor and master levels implemented through complete equivalence of quality. The standards of degree programs would be assessed by the relevant quality agencies of both Pakistan and Austria.

The PAF-IAST with five departments and four major postgraduate research centers of excellence, started to function in September 2020 in Haripur Hazara, within a record time of two and a half years of project approval. Its focus will be to produce well trained engineers that are qualified to the highest European standards at bachelor and master levels.

A purpose-built campus, with state-of-the-art facilities for interactive learning through smart classrooms and advanced laboratory equipment has been established. The academic programs are delivered by highly qualified 100% PhD faculty. In addition, a new concept of ‘Professors of Practice’ has been introduced to bring the applied industrial approach to the classrooms that will also promote linkage with the industry.

In addition, it will establish high quality PhD and postdoctoral training programs in selected applied fields encompassing railway engineering, mineral resource engineering, food processing & packaging technologies and artificial intelligence in collaboration with leading Chinese universities such as Beijing Jiaotong University, China University of Mining & Technology, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology and Guangdong University of Technology. One of the centers called the ‘Sino-Pak Center for Artificial Intelligence’ has already started to function with state-of-the-art facilities and highly qualified PhD faculty. 

The centerpiece of PAF-IAST is the Technology Park, built to cultivate innovation and promote new start-up companies with close linkages with the Austrian, Chinese and Pakistani industries. Emphasis will be on applied research of industrial importance. The aim will be to foster the development and manufacture of innovative products both for the local market of Pakistan and for export. So far more than 20 companies, many with international presence, have either signed MoUs or have shown interest to set up their R&D facilities in the PAF-IAST Technology Park.

A sizable venture capital firm will be available for new product development. The intellectual property rights will be shared with foreign partners if the new developments are in collaboration with them. It will act as the future hub of technological advancement in Pakistan, bringing together graduates, academia, researchers, industry and government.

The writer is Rector of the Pak-Austria Fachhochschule: Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (PAF-IAST), Haripur. He can be reached at mujahid@paf-iast.edu.pk