Interview: Professor Dr Atta Ur Rahman

Published in Hilal English Jan 2014

Maj Asif Jehangir Raja

Question: You started your education from Karachi, had a vision to study science and obtained PhD from Cambridge University during 1960s. How has this journey been all along?

Answer: It has been an exciting journey all along. I started my school very late. I was ten years old when I first went to the school, the reason being our migration from Delhi after the partition. My family first migrated to Okara (a city in Punjab) and my father started the business of Cotton ginning. There wasn't any proper school in Okara at that time so I studied at home by taking tuitions. My father then shifted to Karachi and I started my formal schooling at Karachi Grammar School in 1951/52. I got two double promotions in my early schooling, from grade 3rd to 5th and from grade 6th to 8th. I did my 'O' Levels in 1958 and was lucky to top the exam in entire Pakistan with highest marks. It was followed by my 'A' levels that I successfully underwent in 1960 before joining Karachi University for BSc (Honours) and Masters in the subject of Chemistry with First-class-First grade.

I started teaching in Karachi University after obtaining Masters Degree for a year time before I was offered scholarship for further studies at Cambridge University in 1965. I availed this opportunity and moved to London for my Doctorate and completed my PhD in 1968. Basing on my performance, I was offered teaching assignment at Kings College (Cambridge University) that I accepted and continued my relationship with education in England for few years before my return to Karachi in 1973 with the ambition of setting a world class research centre in Chemistry. I managed to develop this institution in Karachi and am associated with it since then. This centre is now known as 'International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences'. It comprises number of institutes, one of them is “Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry”, and there are several others as well.

We have more than 500 students doing PhD in Organic Chemistry, Bio Chemistry, Pharmacology, Genomics, Molecular Medicine and other fields. It is the largest Doctorate programme in Pakistan.

I also have had 120 students from Germany who studied Chemistry from my institute in last 6 years. It is one of its own kinds of centres among developing countries where students from developed countries are carrying out research.

I have now over 900 research publications that include 124 books which have been published in Europe and USA, and have also been translated in many languages including Japanese and Chinese. These books are now being taught in many universities of the world.

I have continued this exciting journey for the learning, for teaching and for doing research in last forty years or so.

Question. You have always talked of building knowledge economy of Pakistan. Can you briefly explain this concept?

Answer: We live in a world where single most important ingredient for progress is the quality of human resource. The natural resources to include gas, coal, gold and all others have had diminishing importance. The countries which realized that real wealth lies in their children and have invested heavily in the fields of education, science, technology, innovations and entrepreneurship, and have forged ahead, have actually succeeded. Even small countries with very less population like Singapore and Finland have much larger economies than Pakistan that has 180 million population. The Nokia Company of Finland has greater exports than that of complete Pakistan, which should be matter of concern for all of us. This is a changed trend that the world has witnessed during the last few decades. So unless we invest in education and unleash the creative potential of our youth, we cannot move forward and get rid of the problems that we suffer from. Unfortunately our leaders did not possess requisite vision to take this country in the correct direction while even much smaller countries kept progressing.

Question. You are known to be the person who turned around the concept of Higher Education in Pakistan. How far has Pakistan come in this field?

Answer: We have made quite startling progress in the field of Higher Education. When I assumed appointment of Chairman Higher Education Commission (HEC), we had very less number of publications in international journals per year. I started to work on it and, from the figure of about 800 research publications during 2002, we have now gone above 9000 research publications per year which is very encouraging. I am pleased to inform you that we have even taken over India in the count of research publications calculated on the basis of per million population.

India was worried and upset to watch the rapid progress of Pakistan in this field. A presentation on this subject was made to the Indian Prime Minister by Professor CNR Rao, who is India's Advisor on Science & Technology. This presentation was made on 22 July 2006 and an article was published in one of the India's leading newspapers, “Hindustan Times” on 23 July 2006 with the caption of “Pak Threat to Indian Science.” This article talked about tremendous transformation of landscape of our universities during first decade of twenty first century.

India thereafter decided to follow the footsteps of Pakistan, closed down its University Grants Commission (UGC) and formed a body on the lines of HEC in Pakistan, called “National Commission for Higher Education and Research.” The proposal has been approved by their Cabinet and being sent to Lok Sabha for approval. This is an area where we have been able to even make Indians follow us (or to say even envy us). In India, an amount of Rs. 0.12 billion (120,000 Crore Rupees) has been deputed for Higher Education for the coming five years, which is huge. They have now decided to increase the number of “Indian Institute of Technology” (IIT) from seven to sixteen. They are also planning to set 200 new universities and large number of research centres.

Indians have really awoken up after watching the progress of Pakistan, whereas, on the other hand, in recent years (after 2008) we tried everything to destroy the HEC. It was ironic that even a group of worthy parliamentarians (in the shadows of forged degrees allegations and counter allegations) tried to devolve the HEC and break it up into fragments which was prevented by my intervention, wherein I moved a petition in the Court which was won subsequently. Then the effort to appoint an individual from the Ministry of Education as Executive Director of the HEC and to place it under the control of ministry was again challenged by me in the Supreme Court, and I won this case, too. Unless a system to appoint people on merit at all levels is not implemented, progress is not possible.

Question: How in your opinion should Pakistan handle and accommodate the inflow of thousands of PhDs who shall be qualified in the coming few years?

Answer: We have a need of at least 30,000 PhDs in our universities at present. The total requirement of the faculty in the universities is around 45,000 and 70% of our faculty is still not properly qualified. We have the capacity to overcome this shortage by absorbing these numbers of PhD in our universities right away. We also need highly qualified people in our industries and strategic organizations like KRL, PAEC, SUPARCO etc. So Pakistan has the space to accommodate all these highly qualified people within the country.

Question: To support Science or Arts? At which ratio should government grant scholarships to its students? And why?

Answer: To me, both are important. You need to have focus on Social Sciences along with Natural Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture etc. You need to have a balanced educational system. Both are important and you can't decide in favour of either Arts or Science. Mixed blend of educated people who are qualified in all fields can take us forward as a nation. We need historians, we need people in humanities, we need economists, and we need social scientist along with doctors, engineers and scientists, to work for this country.

Question: With the government and private schools teaching different curriculums to similar grade students, education in Pakistan appears to be running on two different streams. How can we narrow down this gap?

Answer: This is a national tragedy. We have ourselves created a fragmented society with the separate schools for the rich and the poor. Another segment of society is being educated in Madrassa system and who face difficulties at a later stage to get absorbed into main flow of education. We need to have one single system of education in Pakistan and it is practicable.

With a single curriculum for all, it will help promote homogeneity and unity at national level. You don't need to look far to watch the practical examples. This is what Sri Lanka, India and other developing countries have done. You cannot have a fragmented system of education. We can only achieve uniformity in education system if we improve quality of curriculum to make it viable for all. We have more than twenty Boards across the country that conduct examinations which is highly confusing. We need to have single examination system with uniformity of standards for all.

Question: What changes in curriculum can help our students to grow as a balanced person?

Answer: We have taken certain steps in this regard. I introduced four year Under Graduate programme in Pakistan which previously used to be of two years. Most of us have earned Graduation Degree under a two year Bachelors' Programme which was too less a period. Purpose of enhancing time period is to give rise to the broader base education system so that a student who is studying science should also get an opportunity to study Social Science, Literature, and Humanities and vice versa at under-graduate level. It will also help students to improve their communication skills and broaden their horizon.

These steps have been introduced at college and university levels which fall under the purview of the HEC. But the problem lies at our school levels. Our education system at Primary and Secondary level is the responsibility of Provincial and Federal Governments. The Provincial Governments are maintaining a pitiable education system in their areas and, sole reason being, our ruling elite, which is mostly feudal. An educated population doesn't suit the feudal system of governance, and also threaten the power base of the feudal elite. This is the main reason that this segment of the ruling elite has not worked on improving the education system at basic level. The previous governments have been spending around 1.9% of the GDP on education which takes us to the bottom seven ranked countries of the world in terms of education budget at par with small African nations, which is a shame. We will have to get rid of the feudal system to bring improvements in education system. It was done in India soon after partition, in Bangladesh through a decision of the Supreme Court after separation from Pakistan. For me, 'Feudocracy' (a word invented all by myself) should be replaced by true 'democracy' that actually represent the people of this country .

We need to make basic changes in the system of governance that can prove to be fruitful for Pakistan within norms of democracy. We must have a strong screening system to keep a check at people who reach to the levels of decision-making. In Iran, no one can become member of the parliament without a Masters Degree so majority of their Cabinet members have either a Masters or a PhD degree. Similarly large number of cabinet members in China and Korea are also PhDs.

Question: During the last decade or so, quality of teachers at college and university level has improved whereas at school levels, the teachers are neither much qualified nor display passion to teach. How can we bring improvements in this field?

Answer: It is all interconnected with the Higher Education System. If you produce good teachers at university and college level, the students who graduate through these good teachers shall themselves be the faculty at school levels tomorrow and would be able to deliver well. The nature of problem is similar to the one explained previously. The selection of teachers at school level is a Provincial subject and that must be accorded priority and due purely merit based. The negligence results in shape of ghost schools, and has also raised number of other issues at lower level education system.

We need to have raised salary structures for the teachers at the school levels and their selection should be done after conduct of central tests at national level. The selection process if conducted independently, shall bring deserving people for the slots and we shall see an automatic rise in the quality of teaching staff at lower level.

Question: We have Urdu as our national language and, English is an international language being taught all over the world. How should we systematically manage our teaching methods by incorporating local and international languages?

Answers: English is now an international language. It is no longer a language for the people of a certain region. Different countries of the world are transforming their education system in accordance with English. China that previously had its entire education system in local language is also now using English at Post Graduate level studies.

To me a student, at very initial stage of his life (2-3 years of education) should be taught in regional / local area language. Because a child understands things best in his own mother tongue. As he grows up, after 5th grade, he should be taught in Urdu as main, and English as a strong second language. At later stages, Urdu should progressively be replaced with English as main language of teaching at college level education and above. It should be a phased transition because 99% of world literature and knowledge being produced now is in English. English can't be scored out whereas learning of local language is equally important.

Question: How do you view life and what, in your vision, is driving force to succeed in life?

Answer: You have to be passionate about learning. It is something that has to be inside you. You have to have burning desire to learn, to teach and to carry out research. It can be termed as a 'love affair' with education. It can't be a 9 to 5 job and there has to be a passion within oneself to learn and then to spread the knowledge. There can't be a better thing than this. Our students are very bright and are amongst the best in the world. We need to provide them the opportunity to learn, to grow intellectually and unleash their productive talent, and then allow them to work for national development and progress.

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