Pakistan’s knowledge city plans ‘impractical’

Scholars say country should focus on more pressing higher education issues after prime minister announces ambitious scheme

November 8, 2020
A Pakistani shoe maker, Hameed, sits inside a giant shoe at his shop in Lahore.
Source: Getty

Experts have been left sceptical of the merits and feasibility of the Pakistani government’s plan to create a new “knowledge city”.

Prime minister Imran Khan tweeted that it was his “dream to build Pakistan’s first knowledge city”, after launching the first phase of the project last month. It will be developed around the Namal Institute, which was established in 2008 and began as an affiliate college of the UK’s University of Bradford, where Mr Khan was then chancellor.

The plan is for the institute, which is located in rural Punjab, to evolve into the largest university town in Pakistan, with several academic centres, libraries and technology parks, as well as schools, shopping centres and hotels.

It is understood that the academic centres will include branch campuses of foreign universities to enable students who cannot afford to study abroad to study at international institutions at home. The project’s website says that it aims to “bring together knowledge workers from all over the world to constitute one of Pakistan’s largest consortiums to acquire, create, disseminate, and utilise knowledge”.

Major construction work is expected to be complete by 2027, but the target is for there to be 800 students and 50 faculty members in the “city” by 2023.

While Mr Khan claimed that the plan was the first of its kind, the previous government launched the Lahore Knowledge Park in 2014. Several foreign institutions announced that they would set up campuses in the park, but the site is still not complete.

Other countries, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, have successfully implemented similar projects, in a bid to move towards a knowledge-based economy. But the Namal Knowledge City project references the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as inspiration.

Mehvish Riaz, an assistant professor at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, said that the knowledge city “could transform the education, economy and technology sectors” in Pakistan, but there were other more pressing higher education issues that the country should focus on.

“Considering the situation prevailing in the existing universities that are facing budgetary cuts for research, salaries and other purposes, I don’t think starting a mega project like the new knowledge city is practical,” she said.

“It would be wiser to transform and upgrade the existing schools, colleges and universities and provide the much-needed facilities there before starting this mega project.”

Dr Riaz added that the deteriorating economy in the country and the fact that the next general election was scheduled for 2023 also meant that the plan was unlikely to be completed.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Zohra and ZZ Ahmed Foundation distinguished professor in mathematics and physics at Lahore’s Forman Christian College, said that the “trademark of past governments…has been to excitedly announce new science cities, technology parks, software hubs and centres of excellence” but none of these has ultimately delivered.

“Our planners have no clue of how critically deficient Pakistan is in terms of high-level professors and researchers,” he said.

Jason Lane, dean of the School of Education at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert on branch campuses, said that while the knowledge-city model could be a catalyst for wide-scale academic change in a country, many had “fizzled”.

“The reality is that a successful knowledge city is more than a picture of a bunch of fancy buildings; a country needs to provide assurances around academic freedom and quality assurance, student and scholar safety, regulatory relief and financial viability. These are high-risk ventures in the most stable environments; places with greater political, economic and safety instability have to work even harder,” he said.

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