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“Industry-Academia Linkages” in the Pakistani Context

Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, specializing in adaptive and model-predictive flight control systems. He received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, and his master’s degree in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.

Several Pakistani industries and universities advertise deep and fruitful industry-academia linkages in their promotional materials. However, one struggles to see the fruits of these so-called linkages in either academia or industry. Be it as either research output or innovating industries, the results are not apparent.

Of course, there are successful models followed by industries and universities all over the world that are a testament to industrial-academic collaboration. Therefore, this begs the question: what went wrong in Pakistan, and why are its universities and industries failing to support each other?

The word “industry” in this context refers to any organization whose stated purpose includes some level of research and development (R&D). This can range from large private sector manufacturing entities that undertake small-scale research for improving their manufacturing processes, to a state-owned defence organization whose primary purpose is R&D of cutting-edge military hardware.

In this article we will refer to any organization willing to collaborate with universities as a “research organization”, even if that organization’s primary goal is manufacturing or services, and not research.

Interestingly, Pakistan possesses a sizable university ecosystem with several internationally competitive universities. Especially since the higher-education boom of the early 2000’s, the number of universities in Pakistan has mushroomed, and with it, the number of graduates being produced.

However, this influx of graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees has not had the effect perhaps expected by the people who envisioned this policy for higher education.

How Universities and Industries Benefit Each Other

It might not be directly obvious why a research organization would choose to spend hard-earned profits on university students, especially those students who have limited inherent interest in the goals of the research organization. However, as any successful businessperson will tell you, innovation is key to survival. For military R&D organizations, this is doubly true. Seemingly small investments in R&D can pay large dividends over the long term and may lead to game-changing technologies. In turn, these gains could help the research organization grow and/or capture more market-share.

Additionally, maintaining relationships with universities allows organizations to keep an ear to the ground for the most cutting-edge areas of research, especially in niche or targeted areas. This can lead to ideas for funding university research or for internal R&D within the organization.

Some large organizations, such as Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), send their staff to universities all over the world to look for collaboration opportunities, or if they fail at that, fish for the newest research directions. This was personally witnessed by the author.

Finally, students trained in areas with specializations required by research organizations are a gold mine of human resource. They are, in a sense, “trained on the job.” These students can continue their research if they are hired right after graduation, bringing with them exactly the right experience. This seamlessly transfers expertise and technology to the people funding the research.

On the other hand, universities are built upon two basic pillars: undergraduate education and research. Research is an expensive endeavor, one often requiring a very specialized workforce and purpose-built labs and infrastructure. It is unrealistic to think that universities can conduct research with an income based purely on student fees. Research requires organizations the value of research and, consequently, fund research in universities. Thus, universities rely on funding from outsiders to run research programs.

What Industries Do Wrong

The most obvious thing research organizations do wrong in Pakistan is entering the conversation with the wrong expectations. Research organizations expect to fund a final-year project of a student in their fourth year of bachelor’s program with around PKR 100,000 with the goal of receiving a completed subsystem or some testbed of direct use to the organization. This model of funding is shockingly common in Pakistan, and whenever you hear about “industry-academia linkages,” this is probably what you are hearing about.

This model is flawed for several reasons.

Firstly, fourth-year undergraduate students are not trained for research and are already burdened with their graduation requirements. These students are possibly the worst choice for research as their primary goal is finishing their program, and not product design.

Secondly, amounts like PKR 100,000 – which are meant to cover material expenses – do not motivate the student to put in any work. Only paying for expenses is expecting free labor from an already overburdened student who, in all likelihood, is paying their own fees.

Thirdly, research is a notoriously slow process. It is near-certain that nothing of value will come from a project that only lasts about a year. Therefore, the practice of funding final-year projects almost always leads to substandard results that lead to little or no value for either the student or the organization.

Some research organizations expect lone professors to “solve problems” for them without consistently funding research projects over several years. How they expect Pakistani university professors with little funding, nine credit hours of teaching load, no doctoral students, and no labs to do this is anyone’s guess.

In sum, having unrealistic expectations from universities is a recipe for disaster.

A Better Way to Do Things: Industries

The most important thing that ought to occur in Pakistan’s industry-academia landscape is realignment of expectations of research organizations. There is a flawed perception that research is a short-to medium-term endeavor, when in fact it is a long-to very-long-term mission.

Research organizations need to limit funding to single-year projects and, instead, fund two-to-five-year projects. This will allow continuity of work on the part of university researchers and allow them to organize their graduate students and teaching accordingly. This will also enable university professors to assign research tasks to graduate students who have multi-year commitments to their postgraduate programs and, in turn, are much better suited to doing research.

Additionally, research organizations need to realize that universities do not have the resources to run extensive research programs on their own. Therefore, funding for a research project should mean funding the fees of all the graduate students involved. This includes stipends for students and professors, and contributions to the construction of labs at the universities. This is an alien concept in Pakistan, but the norm in most developed nations. For example, a two-year, two-student, one-professor research project might cost PKR 4 million, and a five-year, four-student, two-professor research project could cost around PKR 24 million. This is the kind of commitment research organizations must make for the R&D process to bear any fruits.

Furthermore, university research flourishes when it is open-ended, as opposed to internal industry research, which is usually focused on solving specific problems. Open-ended university research is not geared towards specific systems or products, but rather, towards technologies.

This research, which is broad in scope, is termed “basic research” (note: ‘basic’ does not mean simple or rudimentary). Consequently, research organizations need to fund research areas and not just research into development of systems.

For example, it is much better to fund a 10-year project on “Establishment of Center for Radar Systems” at a university than two-year project for development of a transmit/receive module, which is bound to fail or produce substandard results. A specialized university lab will produce tens or hundreds of successful projects while simultaneously training hundreds of engineers in technologies that previously would have been only accessible outside of Pakistan. All of this requires long-term planning and thinking where results are slow, sometimes intangible, but exponentially beneficial in the long run.

Finally, research organizations must focus their funding towards master’s and doctoral students. Several Strategic Plans Division (SPD) organizations sponsor undergraduate students in Pakistan where they pay for their education in return for a five-year employment term. This money would be much better spent training doctoral students who will bring a drastically higher level of expertise upon completion of their degrees. In fact, these students can focus their doctoral thesis on research areas important to the funding organizations.

What Universities Do Wrong?

As described earlier, universities have two core pillars: undergraduate education and research. It can be argued that the focus in Pakistan has disproportionately been on undergraduate education. This can be seen by the large number of universities that are enrolling growing numbers of students for bachelor’s programs. Focus on research has been flawed in several ways (something that requires exploration outside this article), which has resulted in master’s and doctoral degrees not leading to internationally recognized research. These lopsided priorities are directly responsible for limiting Pakistani universities from reaching their true potential.

Undergraduate education is certainly important as one cannot have students with master’s or doctoral degrees without students with bachelor’s degrees. However, if the focus becomes purely on undergraduate education, then the universities will hire professors primarily to teach and nothing else.

This has resulted in professors all over Pakistan expected to teach nine-credit hours each semester. For reference, professors in the United States are expected to teach tjree credit hours each semester so that they can dedicate the rest of their time to research. It is a Herculean task to teach nine credit hours each semester and then find time for research. Only professors willing to go well beyond the line of duty and sacrifice their personal lives can do serious research in Pakistan.

A chicken-and-egg situation occurs as the inability to do research means that universities cannot rely on research funding to stay afloat and must enroll larger number of undergraduate students, requiring even more teaching. Moreover, universities under pressure from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) pressure their professors to produce research. With this ecosystem and incentive structure, most of the produced research cannot even be considered research.

Furthermore, Pakistani universities need to realize that research is carried out by graduate students (master’s and doctoral students) and not undergraduate students. More often than not, master’s and doctoral programs are an after-thought; they are run in evening hours, when the campus is not being used for undergraduate teaching.

The common perception is that undergraduate programs are respectable in Pakistan, however, graduate programs are sub-par, and graduate students are better served outside Pakistan. This perception stems from the poor quality of graduate education in Pakistani universities. This is compounded by the fact that research organizations only fund short-term projects geared towards undergraduate students.

A Better Way to Do Things: Universities

If universities want to carry out research, then professors engaged in research must be limited to only teaching three to six credit hours each semester (without getting reduced pay or losing their jobs).

The incentive structure for research must also change. Professors should not be expected to publish an arbitrary number of research papers each year. Rather, universities should primarily focus professors on obtaining external funding from research organizations and government funding agencies.

The requirements for publication in internationally recognized journals should be part of the externally funded projects. This incentivizes real research as opposed to the paper mills that our universities have unfortunately become. This also brings in much needed funding for research at universities that allows them to fulfil their original purpose.

Secondly, universities must focus on master’s and doctoral programs. These programs must be focused, well-planned, and have faculty especially geared towards teaching graduate-level courses. Ideally, no doctoral student should pay a single rupee for their degree but should instead be paid a monthly stipend of at least PKR 50,000 for their work. Each seriously funded project would include more than enough funds for one to two doctoral students. With each professor managing several research projects, a research group of four to eigh doctoral students can be maintained at a time.

Research is carried out by research groups and not individuals. No professor or final-year undergraduate can do research on their own. Typically, research groups are made up of one or two professors, with 5 to 15 doctoral students. This allows for the group to work on several projects, which can benefit several organizations at the same time. Moreover, this allows continuity of research as the graduation of one student does not jeopardize the research. Graduate student is a misnomer as they are not really paying the university to teach them courses. A more apt description is graduate researcher who is paid by the university to do research. Unfortunately, this an idea alien to most in Pakistani universities.

In the absence of the right attention and funding from local organizations, foreign organizations have started to take interest in taking advantage of Pakistan’s dormant research potential. It will be unfortunate if our own organizations are unable to utilize our human resources. With each passing year, Pakistani talent is either moving abroad abroad or enduring in underpaying jobs. Their only solace is to wait for foreign organizations to recruit them for their work (i.e., abroad).

Overall, there must be a serious realignment of expectations and priorities of both research organizations and universities so both can feed off each other. We are wasting large amounts of money and talent because of the inability to think long-term.

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