Entrepreneurial universities offer a glimpse of the future

About 50 miles from Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, in Haripur, stands a glimmering new ‘hybrid’ university, the Pak-Austria Fachhochschule, in a beautiful setting in the midst of undulating hills with a lake at its centre. It represents a number of unique concepts developed by us which take into consideration the needs of a developing country such as Pakistan.

This university was developed by a steering committee which I headed. It was established in a record time of 30 months by the herculean efforts of Project Director Professor Nasser Ali Khan and Rector Professor Mohammad Mujahid under the advice and guidance of Professor Haroon Ahmed, former master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, United Kingdom; Professor A Min Tjoa from the Vienna University of Technology, Austria; the late Professor Bernd Michael Rode from the University of Innsbruck, Austria; Professor Sohail Naqvi, former rector of the University of Central Asia, and many eminent Chinese scientists.

A second such university is presently under construction, again under my supervision, near the industrial city of Sialkot. These universities provide a glimpse of the future of high-quality entrepreneurial professional education.

A hybrid university

In many European countries, universities of applied science and engineering have been established to cater for the technical manpower needs of industry. Known as Fachhochschule, they provide practical training to students at bachelor and masters degree levels in various industry-related engineering skills.

The students who qualify from such institutions are in great demand by European industry because of their intensive practical training by industrial experts and their practical problem-solving abilities.

These Fachhochschule differ from normal engineering universities in that they normally do not have the PhD or postdoctoral programmes found in engineering universities.

The Pak-Austria Fachhochschule is the first ‘hybrid’ university in the world, with one part operating as a Fachhochschule while another part comprises five centres of excellence providing research training at PhD and postdoctoral levels. There is a central innovation technology park devoted to the commercial development of new products.

The advantage of such an institution is that it will provide an entrepreneurial environment for business development. The disciplines being taught include machine learning, artificial intelligence, high speed railway engineering, materials engineering and emerging areas of agricultural, biological and chemical sciences.

The second remarkable feature of this university is that it involves international collaborations with eight foreign universities, three from Austria and five from China. These collaborations involve faculty training in foreign partner universities in Austria and China, quality assurance by the partner foreign universities and delivery of lectures by faculty members of the collaborating universities, both remotely and on-site.

To ensure absolute equivalence with foreign partner university standards, foreign quality assurance agencies will be involved in the accreditation process and dual degrees offered to students who meet the rigorous standards set.

Each foreign university has agreed to focus on the development of just one department or in some cases two departments and to train faculty and offer degrees to students enrolled in that department. This therefore is probably the first university in the world where students enrolled in one department will get a degree from one foreign university, while those enrolled in another department will get degrees from another foreign university.

The training is carried out both in the university and in industry. All faculty members have PhDs but guest lecturers are also invited from industry. The programmes include lectures, tutorials, integrated massive open online courses (MOOCs), interaction with visiting scholars, as well as periods of overseas training in advanced aspects of engineering, technology and science.

Students spend at least 500 hours as a mandatory part of their undergraduate education in industry as interns during semester breaks. The various departments and centres of excellence are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment as specified by the foreign partners.

A strong knowledge economy

There are three additional important aspects of the university:

The Integrated Technology Park and Business Development Centre: This is the most important part of this entrepreneurial university. It provides free space for software and product development with grants from the university and other authorities.

The success of this university will thus be measured not just by research publications in high impact journals or PhD output but primarily by innovation – the number of new successful start-ups, new products developed that have been commercialised and international patents awarded.

Business development is closely linked to university education and training and faculty members are expected to start their own companies or be consultants to other companies. Experts in business, including investment and exploitation of intellectual property rights, are appointed as visiting faculty. Business angels, investors and legal experts are made available when required.

Research and innovation funds: Research and innovation funds are available to support the development of projects within the university and the technology park. About US$10 million has been set aside to support new product development. A major land endowment has also been established, the income from which will be used to foster innovation and entrepreneurship.

Role of industrialised nation partners: The scheme offers benefits both to the foreign partner countries and Pakistan. The academic leaders and business leaders from these countries are helping to raise the university’s standards of education, research and innovation to an international level. Intellectual property rights will be shared with them for commercial products developed.

It is clear that there are exciting changes now occurring in the academic landscape of Pakistan. These entrepreneurial universities of engineering and technology are expected to contribute in a major way to the development of a strong knowledge economy and to enhance national exports of high value-added technology products.

Atta-ur-Rahman FRS is honorary life fellow, King’s College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and professor emeritus at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi, Pakistan.