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The Industry-Academia Disjuncture in Pakistan

Since the establishment of Higher Education Commission, the quality and direction of higher education in Pakistan has significantly improved. A number of research publications have boomed and so is the number of graduates. Recent developments include technology parks, incubation center, industry-oriented funding through Ignite - to name a few. Still, a fundamental issue is industry-academia disconnect. In the rest of the article, I will use the term “industry” as an umbrella term for enterprises such as manufacturing, finance, technology, agriculture, government entities, etc. Current establishment of academia is not able to disrupt the industry. Unfortunately, there seems no dire need from either side. One may think that it is too early to ask for an industrial impact of the research, I hardly see it happening for several reasons. Below, I will draft a few key aspects of this dilemma and potential remedies.

Industry Governance Board - Academic Qualification - Germany vs Pakistan

In a developed world, industry looks towards academia for directions. Universities and research centers become the ultimate power-houses for the industry. One key reason for such connectedness is industry's belief in innovation. This belief, and the culture it represents, is not developed by attending talk-talk sessions or eating powerpoint slides. Its due to an embedding of innovative people in respective decision making bodies.

On this hypothesis, I conducted a quick study on academic qualification of corporate bodies of top-30 German companies (FTSE 30) and compared with top-30 in Pakistan (KSE30). Note that German public companies' corporate bodies include (a) a supervisory board which monitors execution and sets directions of the business and (b) a board of directors - the executives responsible for day to day business. Pakistani companies on the other hand have usually one board called Board of Directors plus one or more management committees (often comprising of the board members). While an apple-apple comparison is difficult, here is a comparison of the baskets: Of approximately 614 board positions in KSE30, only 15 are held by PhD's i.e. ~2.5%. Compare it with Germany's 200 PhDs for 658 board positions i.e. 30%. Will Pakistan achieve this ratio, say in 10 years from now? Who should act → Government and Industry.

Industry funded R&D

Does having more PhD's in corporate bodies correlate with business success. May be yes, may be not. But it certainly helps in improving industry funded R&D. In Germany, industry contributes nearly 70% in the total R&D spendings of approximately 90 Billion Euros annually ~ 2.2% of GDP. In Pakistan, total spendings on R&D is less than 0.3% of GDP. Contribution of industry is close to null. In a recent survey in textile sector only 5% thought universities were important. This is an unfortunate trend of lack of innovation that makes Pakistan producer of often out-fashioned products. Interestingly, even IT industry is suffering from lack of innovation. Who should act → Industry.

Education - Research and DEVELOPMENT

No research is fruitful without relevant development - in the short term. Pakistan is not able to monetize its research neither in terms of patents (due to cost, lack of training, and nature of research) nor in terms of products (lack of footprint in international marketing and sales). The focus, therefore, should be on resource development (to improve exports) and on industrial products development (to reduce imports). Both of these needs high-quality graduates with technical and entrepreneurial skills. Fortunately, we have now thousands of PhDs from top international universities as faculty members at Pakistani universities. They should be properly utilized by the relevant industries for harvesting innovation, optimizing processes, and developing products beyond conventional practices (of industry 2.5). As an alignment the faculty should adjust their courses according to market demands. In a recent panel discussion at SZABIST, Islamabad, Mr. Owais Anjum CEO of Emumba pointed to the dilemma that management of most HEIs have no incentives or KPIs related to market consumption. Personally,I am concerned that without a proper digitization of domestic industry, a new bread of half-cooked data scientists will be on the streets in coming years. There should be metrics and incentives on graduate quality and market consumption - this will eventually put academia in a position to foster a demand of their product (for now, the tons of graduates). Who should act → Academia.

Education - Types of Educational Institutes and Trainee Programs

Not every graduate intend to go to research (research is a privilege and shall be treated so). So a pragmatic approach should be focusing on producing high-quality undergraduates. Germany for instance have a parallel system of technical higher educational institutes known as Fachhochschule (Technical Schools). Fachhochschule's primarily offers Bachelor and Master programs with intention of getting industry ready graduates. Research in FH's focuses on quick implementation. Students who intend to go-to market often join FH's. Against 106 Universities, Germany has 218 Fachhochschules. The good news is that there is an ongoing project of establishment of first Fachhochschule in KPK. There should be a 100.

Another important aspect is industry’s investment in education through trainee programs. At Bachelor level, Dual Hochschule Baden-Württemberg network is a prime example where students are only enrolled on behalf of industries. Hundreds of industrial partners, including IBM, Bosch, and HP, support their technology oriented degree programs. Students in these programs spend 3 months in university and 3 months in industry each semester. Another example of industry focused study programs is Master@IBM where students primarily work at an office and secondarily join customized courses at the university. The point is, such students are market-ready by the end of their program. Who should act → Government, Academia, and Industry.

To summarize, we need to (i) incentivize industries to invest in innovation (ii) support industry improve their R&D through induction of PhDs, and (iii) complement research-focused higher education by intensive apprenticeship based education e.g. through Fachhochschules and joint degree programs.


Dr. Shahzad Cheema

Cofounder and Lead at Data Science Initiative Pakistan Lead Data Scientist, IBM Watson IoT, Germany