Overhaul Needed In Under Graduate Engineering Education

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UET Lahore has been one of the most prolific engineering institutions in Pakistan. A new VC at the helm of affairs aims to change the way undergraduate studies at the varsity are conducted. Ammar Sheikh probes how Dr Mansoor Sarwar aims to do that.

aving a pool of able engineers is one of the many ways a nation can ensure that it is set on the path of industrial progress and with it, economic stability. That had been true for Pakistan as well, whose engineers were once sought after resources that could overcome the most complex of engineering problems anywhere in the world. But like the general neglect of the education system over the years, our engineering education and our engineers have moved to the back of the global pack owing to archaic practices and lack of innovative approaches in pedagogy and instruction.

 

Professor Syed Mansoor Sarwar aims to change all that and take engineering education in Pakistan back to its glory days. And he might well be in a position to do just that, as he recently took charge of one of the best engineering institutes in Pakistan – the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore  his focus: overhaul the undergraduate education offered at the university. According to Dr Sarwar, this overhauling could create a rollover effect for other academic activities at the varsity, including improvements in graduate education as well as promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship at UET. In an exclusive discussion with Academia Magazine, Dr Sarwar said his focus during his tenure as vice chancellor would be to improve undergraduate education at UET.  “I am a graduate of this university and I feel that undergraduate education at the university has deteriorated over the years. Improving undergraduate education using modern paradigms of hands-on work to solve complex and unknown problems will not only improve employability, but also produce graduates who innovate and create jobs for others,” he said. Automatically, he said, graduate programs would also improve and result in higher quality graduates. “So, improving the undergraduate program will have a ripple effect and it will also improve the quality of publications,” he added.

 

Problems At Hand 

The UET VC identified reduced teacher focus on undergraduate teaching, rote learning, and lack of honing creative approach to problems as the major problems plaguing undergraduate education. He plans to constitute a think-tank with teachers from within and outside the university, as well as the industry, for suggestions to improve the undergraduate engineering education system. He said UET had a vibrant, talented, and professionally accomplished faculty, adding that he would start a dialogue with the faculty on some ideas in this regard to jump start the reform process. “Teachers are now focused mostly on just publishing due to the ‘publish or perish’ paradigm prevalent in the country, all at the expense of reduced focus on teaching,” Sarwar opined.

Asked about the students, he was of the view that children coming from FA/FSc stream lacked creative thinking and the challenge for the varsity was to create curricula and academic environment that pushed them to think creatively. “We get very talented students from all over the country, as it is one of the most sought after engineering universities in the country.” As for the infrastructure, he said UET had a good infrastructure available and excellent laboratory facilities. “Some departments are in old, historic buildings and we will have to work on those to improve the infrastructure,” Dr Sarwar said, adding that lab equipment in some departments was needed and he had already asked the relevant people to prepare PC-1s in this regard. “We also need to focus on teacher training, especially for young teachers, to help them effectively teach and carry out more meaningful research and development activities.”

Financial Emergency

But the greatest challenge that Dr Mansoor Sarwar said the institution was faced with was its financial situation. The VC said the university was in an extremely bad shape financially. “I was flabbergasted to know that UET did not have any pension fund. The university relies heavily on Higher Education Commission’s (HEC’s) funds to pay out salaries, and pensions,” he lamented. But that payout is likely to suffer in the near future given the cuts in HEC funding. Dr Sarwar revealed that HEC had decreased the varsity’s grant by 10.5 percent this year. On the other hand, salaries and pensions had been increased by 5-10 percent this year and inflation is running around 12%. Considering devaluation of currency, the financial gap has increased by 35-40 percent, he explained.

     The new VC believes overhauling education delivery will have a rollover effect for other academic activities at the varsity, including promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship at UET.

“Now, we will have to find new ways of fundraising. We are also looking at areas from where we can save funds. Our energy expense is very high and we are looking to reduce that. We are looking at renewable energy solution, as advised by Punjab Governor (and varsity chancellor) Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, and HEC. We are already installing a solar system in one of the buildings. The Punjab CM has also said that grants would be given to universities for such projects.”

The former PUCIT principal said public sector universities had limited options to gather funds. “We are not allowed to operate businesses on campus due to the very nature of academic institutions. The only remaining option is increasing fees in order to save the university from going bankrupt,” he feared. But the new fee structure would applicable to new (incoming) students only. “We did it as a last resort. We are looking for other ways to generate more funds and increase scholarships for needy students, so that no student who is admitted to UET is denied education for lack of financial resources,” Sarwar suggested.

Help Needed

Dr Sarwar was of the view that HEC should take the lead and guide public sector universities to overcome financial challenges, helping them in devising strategies for generating funds instead of universities having to raise fees. He said that some of the charges at public sector universities, other than fees, were unsustainable. For example, he said, students living in hostels of UET only paid Rs 1,200 per semester for the facility. “It was Rs 300 per month earlier; how can a university provide good services for that fee?” he asked. The VC said it was a “bitter pill that we have to swallow. But, even with increased fees for new students, UET remains the most inexpensive engineering university in the province. Our fees are at least 50% less than all other public sector universities offering engineering (except UET Taxila), including NUST, PIEAS, COMSATS, ITU, Air University and Bahria University.”

To find solution to this increasingly worrying financial conundrum, Dr Sarwar is looking at several options. He said UET could consider a self-support system similar to that in Punjab University. “This will also be merit-based; what is called replica or self-support programs at Punjab University. Specialized continuing education training courses are also in the pipeline, which will help generate funds for the university and also provide technically advance and sound training to public at large.” To a question on quality of research, the UET Lahore VC was of the view that engineering research was meant to solve problems. “I want quality research that solves our indigenous problems as well as contributes to global knowledge. I am against publishing just for the sake of it. I also want to increase the R&D budget so that rather than relying on external sources, such as HEC, we can fund research projects ourselves. I would also increase financial reward for publications in top most journals in the relevant disciplines.”