PAKISTAN’S Minister of Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, announced in March 2016 that three universities will be established along the CPEC’s (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) western route in the provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and Balochistan. Historically, regions lying on the periphery of western Pakistan and western China were somehow less developed.
Balochistan is the largest but least developed province of Pakistan. The proposed setting up of three universities along the CPEC’s western route, while passing through underdeveloped zones, would attract endowments, bring financial investments and promote collaboration with industries, technological centers and foreign universities.
Universities played an important role in the Western world’s development. Universities are now evolving beyond traditional role of teaching and awarding degrees. By fostering research and innovation and building connections with industry and businesses, linkages with research centers and pushing reforms, they can act as engines of national growth and development.
While in developing countries like Pakistan the linkage has been restricted to certain selected sectors such as bio-technology and pharmaceuticals, collaboration in other areas is slowly taking place. Hence the government’s decision to build universities along the CPEC’s western route is very timely. The new industries, if strategically located, would contribute to capacity building, generating skills and jobs.
Gwadar port, the centerpiece of the CPEC, could pave the way for further infrastructure and energy developments — including roads and railway tracks, industrial parks, fiber optics, technical training centers, businesses schools, and ancillaries such as colleges, hospitals, markets, restaurants and hotels.
Further, new universities along the corridor could specialize in special development potentials. These include diverse competencies like mining, strategic minerals, fruit growing, farming, small dams, coastal development, mangroves and fisheries.
Culturally, exposure to Chinese language, history and philosophies such as Confucian work ethics would encourage people-to-people links. The Confucian values of respect for family, hierarchy, harmony, efficiency, work ethics, loyalty to parent companies and management styles would hopefully help usher positive changes in Pakistani society.
Pakistan faces a “youth bulge” and young people would gradually get exposed to new ideas while interacting with the Chinese. In addition, universities in remote regions would allow movement of students from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia and nudge the region towards regional connectivity.
Today, universities in many advanced countries are helping business enterprises and start-ups by extending research, technical services and advice. These efforts have resulted in faster technical and industrial progress as well as survival of many young enterprises that might have otherwise failed.
However, the universities can become more effective in contributing to regional/industry development by having a strategic plan. This demands a multipronged approach. This may have to be customized on a sector/organizational basis. It may be worthwhile initially to target the innovation prone sectors like ICT. In addition, academia may have to come up with interventions aimed at creating awareness through training programs for local business people and exposure of local creativity and expertise to multinational companies operating in the country.
Lastly, it would be appropriate to honor distinguished Pakistani economist Mahbubul Haq’s ardent wish that allocation to social services (education and health) in Pakistan be raised to 10 percent of the GDP. And universities in concert with government, business and industry could be harbingers of national growth and development.
The writer is visiting faculty at Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and former president of Islamabad Policy Research Institute. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.