Pakistan risks being left behind.
By Javaid R. Laghari | From the May 6‚ 2011‚ issue
Behrouz Mehri / AFP
Innovation and entrepreneurship helped the U.S. become an economic powerhouse in the 20th century. Today, thanks to an increasingly interconnected world, the same innovation and entrepreneurship have become driving forces for emerging economies aspiring to become economic giants. The world’s economic center of gravity is slowly shifting from the West to the East. According to a 2010 World Bank report on the economic future of the world, the size of developing economies as a group will surpass developed economies by 2015. This is happening because emerging economies are no longer content to provide cheap, low-cost labor. Instead, they are transforming, and leading the way in recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-09.
Two important forces are driving this change—the information and communications technology revolution, and increased investment in higher education, technical training, research and innovation. This should be Pakistan’s focus if it wants to emulate the success of other emerging economies.
There has been a steady shift as companies moved eastward for labor that was not just cheap, but also technically proficient and well educated. From producing next-generation cellular phones and tablet computers to handling airline reservations and healthcare emergencies, emerging economies are taking the lead. American IT giant IBM now employs more people in developing countries than it does in America.
There are currently 2 billion Internet users around the world. The largest numbers are in Asia, with about 825 million, followed by Europe and North America, with only 475 million and 266 million respectively. China, with over 450 million people online, is the largest nation online. Compare that to the U.S., which has around 240 million. In cellular phones too, China leads with 842 million phones, far ahead of the 285 million in the U.S.
Pakistan is moving forward on this front. For a population of 180 million, cell phone connections had hit 100 million by 2010. Broadband Internet connections were just under a million in 2010, but had shown significant growth over previous years.
But where we really need to emulate successful emerging economies is higher education, which has seen a boom. In China, student enrollment for higher education grew from 1 million to 5.5 million between 1997 and 2007. China has built the largest higher education sector in the world in just a decade. Currently, it stands second behind the U.S. in terms of research output. But not for long. Britain’s Royal Society expects China to leapfrog the U.S. into first place by 2013. That China will become the world’s largest economy by 2020, overtaking the U.S., is strongly linked to its growth in higher education and research. There has been a similar expansion of higher education in India, which is predicted to become the world’s third largest economy by 2050.
Other economies are following in China and India’s footsteps. Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2009 with a $10 billion endowment and the aim to become a center for excellence in research and innovation. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia is developing an ‘EduCity’ across the Singapore border, with a development zone three times the size of Singapore. Indonesia has over 4 million higher education students, three times more than Pakistan. Smaller Gulf countries, like the U.A.E. and Qatar, have also established academic cities.
There has been a higher education revolution in Pakistan as well over the last eight years, with over 66 new universities having been set up. University enrollment has tripled. Research has grown six-fold in the last five years, and the number of Ph.D.s awarded has quadrupled. Research centers focused on energy, water, and agriculture are being established at leading universities. But that is now threatened by politics, and there is fear that this progress will halt and higher education will again stagnate or, worse, regress in Pakistan.
We cannot afford that in a world that is moving forward very rapidly. Other economies that were once at the same level as us are competing in science, technology, innovation and research with the big powers of the world. With myriad security threats to the country, and bad governance plaguing most sectors, we cannot afford to be left behind. Coupled with infrastructure development for information and communication, Pakistan must maintain its push to improve and expand higher education. That is the only way forward, and if done right, Pakistan too can become a successful emerging economy.
Laghari is chairman of the Higher Education Commission.