The Federal Minister of Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, recently advised the Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to organize a national roundtable of employers and universities, primarily to gather feedback on employers’ perspective. Reportedly, he further solicited insights from stakeholders on the critical importance of aligning university education with emerging labor markets. The central question he raised is: what are we teaching and producing and what should we change? At first glance, it seems to formulate a conceptual framework that could right-align university education with attractive new trends in labor markets. It could eventually use the same approach to define the long and short term goals of the PML-N government in creating new jobs in the country while developing a vision for future policies in education and economic growth. The idea can also be analyzed in the context of the failure of the PTI government to deliver on its promise to provide 10 million jobs to the people as per the commitment made in the election manifesto. The question raised by the Minister of Planning must, however, be supplemented by a subsidiary question of critical importance: what do we want to achieve? This question may denote a better orientation for the President of HEC regarding the strategic objective of the proposed Round Table. The outcome of such a meeting could be a long-term plan or vision of the government to provide maximum jobs for university graduates in Pakistan.
The relevance of university education to emerging labor markets is fundamentally linked to the concept of supply and demand in the economy. As technology advances rapidly, the nature and scope of jobs are rapidly changing. This means that the demand for jobs is experiencing unprecedented variations due to the challenges posed by technology. Similar variations can also be noted on the supply side of university graduates who are desperate for employment. The growing gap between the expertise developed by university graduates and the needs derived from emerging labor markets requires continuous analysis of the situation which would naturally give rise to new invincible disciplines and new fields of research. This means that all academic departments of universities must engage with their students after graduation so that they can get feedback on their employment status. According to these comments, universities should launch new academic programs and ingest those that are consistently unable to provide employment for fading graduates.
Historically, Pakistan is good at making visions and plans on paper. The country’s first five-year plans gained international popularity, and some countries adopted them in pursuit of their political goals. South Korea, for example, developed its five-year plans with technical assistance from Pakistani planning authorities. About ten years ago, a seminar entitled “Lessons from Korean Development” was organized by the Planning Commission, in which Professor Jwa Sung Hee participated. While noting a difference between the implementation strategies of the plans and visions in Pakistan and South Korea, he said South Korea strictly follows the rigorous and targeted implementation of the plans. Pakistan, however, could not maintain the momentum to achieve the goals enshrined in its enigmatic visions. The rudimentary cause of Pakistan’s failure was not its political orientation but the lack of the necessary procedural dexterity and processes necessary to achieve the goals. This is actually the area of innovation and entrepreneurship that the government needs to focus on. However, the required processes are based on modern technology for which the workforce must be qualified in accordance with new employment trends. This suggests that a de novo analysis of the demand and supply of university education and new emerging trends in employment is necessary to achieve both long-term and short-term policy goals.
Pakistani planners have historically underestimated the challenges associated with their elaborate plans and visions. This is exactly the area highlighted by Professor Hee when comparing the development of Pakistan and South Korea. The processes involved are the real challenges. No matter how impressive the policy and plan are, if the corresponding processes to achieve its objectives are weak, the plan is bound to fail. This suggests de-biasing the challenges associated with visions. In the early 2000s, the Pervez Musharraf government decided to produce doctorates in all disciplines from foreign and local universities. However, when awarding the scholarships, no solid analysis was made to right-align university education with modern employment trends. As a result, there has been a meteoric growth of doctoral students in the country. The supply of PhDs has increased dramatically while the demand for jobs has decreased. The situation gave rise to a protest by doctoral students outside the residence of the former Prime Minister in Banigala in 2018. In addition, protests by engineers and other unemployed professionals are now commonplace and question the relevance of the incongruous subjects taught at University. the universities.
The whole situation requires a holistic analysis around the question: what do we want to achieve? The principle of “economy first” deserves attention in this respect. All other national priorities must be placed under this single principle. Today, Pakistan faces huge current account and trade deficits, which naturally makes economic growth the country’s most strategic priority. The most urgent policy direction to foster economic growth is to dramatically increase the volume of exports in sectors where Pakistan has a clear advantage. As a first step, this area could be the subject of analysis and research while aligning university education with new employment trends. Export competitiveness and penetration of global markets remain two major challenges facing exporters and the Pakistani government. Following Professor Hee’s advice, Pakistan needs to focus on processes to achieve its political goals. The proposed roundtable, instead of wasting time and resources simply scribbling policies, should focus on developing processes to achieve policy goals. Most stakeholder analyzes limit the feedback received into vigorous themes and sub-themes to evolve new processes. The same must be at the heart of the roundtable so that the new government can understand the seriousness of the challenges in properly aligning university education with emerging labor markets and linking them to the challenges associated with trade and the economy. Developing processes is a rigorous mission and a major challenge. Any miscalculation or underestimation of the challenges this time around could drag Pakistan even further into the abyss of underdevelopment.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17and2022.
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