The developing world needs more specialist universities

Pakistan’s labour shortages illustrate that well-rounded graduates also need to be properly prepared for specific industries, says Tahir Shah

二月 28, 2021
A Pakistani power plant
Source: iStock

With the fourth industrial revolution upon us, you could be forgiven for questioning the wisdom of establishing specialised universities. With the future of work so uncertain amid the march of automation and AI, many universities and governments have concluded that it is better not to steep graduates in subject knowledge linked to specific employment sectors but rather to give them a well-rounded higher education focused on transferable skills and attributes such as teamwork and problem-solving.

India’s new National Education Plan, with its emphasis on liberal arts, is a good illustration of this direction of travel. However, it would be a big mistake to leap to the conclusion that comprehensive universities are a panacea. For developing countries in particular – and especially those focused on technology and export – there remains a definite rationale for specialist universities.

Since I returned to Pakistan three years ago, after a 40-year academic career in the UK, I have observed with dismay the country’s purposeless mass production of generalist graduates who cannot find employment in major industrial sectors because they lack the specific knowledge and skills.

Pakistan’s graduate unemployment rate is almost three times the overall national unemployment rate, and there is a similar picture in India. According to a recent survey, more than 47 per cent of graduates in India are not suitable for jobs in the major sectors of the economy. And this, of course, has huge consequences for the entire nation.

Global industrial development and employment trends show that specialist education both enhances the progress of the specific industries and increases the employability of graduates. This is because the best specialist universities place employers in the related industry at the very heart of their educational, research and skills development programmes, such that, for example, their students take on research projects to develop tangible solutions to companies’ and organisations’ specific problems. This creates graduates who are steeped in the working environments of particular industrial sectors and are able to fulfil their immediate, real-world needs.

In the past, graduates of Pakistan’s specialist educational institutions – such as the National Textile University, the Agricultural University and Lahore University of Management Sciences – formed the major part of the workforce in their respective industrial sectors. However, there is currently a severe shortage of qualified personnel in areas such as textiles, ICT and construction. I am sure that the situation is similar in many developing countries.

It is true that industry links and work experience can be provided in relevant departments or specialised centres within comprehensive universities, but these do not typically meet the workforce needs and research and development priorities of the major industrial sectors. Equally, however, not every specialist institution develops the requisite industry links – and, in Pakistan, there are simply not enough of them. Strategies must be developed for the establishment of more – linked with technology parks to facilitate the transfer of their specialist knowledge. Moreover, existing specialist institutions must establish state-of-the-art campuses to provide the environment and facilities where innovative and entrepreneurial graduates and researchers can be cultivated, with the appropriate knowledge, skills, acumen and leadership capabilities.

It is also important, however, to guard against producing short-sighted graduates with narrow and potentially dead-end career options. It is true that whole industries may appear and disappear in the coming years, while many employers prefer graduates who have augmented knowledge and skills in multiple areas that can be applied to their particular workplaces.

Hence, specialist universities should produce graduates who, while having a strong focus on the requirements of specific industrial sectors, are also well-rounded and capable of adapting to new industrial paradigms. These are not mutually exclusive aspirations. Elective modules allow students to widen their backgrounds in other fields that may (or may not) be related to their specialised areas.

The developing world cannot afford to lavish public funds on the development of general-purpose graduates who find extreme difficulty in obtaining purposeful employment and do not make any major contribution to the national economy. If there is anything worse than an unemployed worker in such countries, it is a jobless graduate.

Tahir H. Shah is a consultant and professor of advanced materials and technical textiles at the National Textile University in Faisalabad, Pakistan.


Print headline: Specialists required



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