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HomeEducationFrom Telecommunications to Technology: The Evolution in Education

From Telecommunications to Technology: The Evolution in Education

A generation ago, Matric students going into higher secondary school (FA/FSc) faced a simple choice: take up the pre-medical track in hopes of being admitted to an MBBS (or BDS) program, take up the pre-engineering and technology track in hopes of being admitted to an engineering program, or take the ISSB test to join the armed forces of Pakistan.

High school graduates who successfully joined a medical college, engineering university, or the armed forces were seen as being on a sure track to join the middle/upper-middle class. Those unsuccessful in all three would pursue other avenues, with their prospects considered uncertain until they achieved some level of career success.

Among engineering disciplines, electrical engineering has traditionally been the top choice. An electrical engineering program was versatile and could open doors in various sectors. A university engineering seat, especially in electrical engineering, going unfilled was rare.

In the mid-90s, two- and three-year computer science bachelor’s programs began mushrooming across Pakistan. These programs operated with little oversight compared to engineering and medical programs, which are subject to oversight by the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) and the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC). For many years, computer science programs operated with minimal interference until the National Computing Education Accreditation Council (NCEAC) was established in 2005.

The global internet and dot-com boom of the late ‘90s and the nascent technology startup ecosystem in Pakistan made computer science an attractive alternative for high school graduates who could not get into hypercompetitive medical and engineering programs.

In 2000, Pakistan introduced the Calling Party Pays (CPP) policy in the cellular mobile telephony sector, which multiplied the number of cellphone service subscribers year after year. This was followed by the broader de-regulation policy of the telecom sector in July 2003, bringing new investments and companies into the sector and increasing the demand for electrical engineers.

The Pakistani telco boom lasted a little longer than a decade. By the early 2010s, several waves of telco engineers had gained experience working for Pakistani cell service providers, with many moving on to employers abroad. Career progression within companies slowed, entry-level openings were few, and competition between service providers was fierce. The introduction of 3G and 4G/LTE services gave the industry another boost but eventually slowed. Subsequent years saw consolidation in the sector with exits and acquisitions continuing.

Meanwhile, the tech start-up sector grew and matured, launching more startups and creating opportunities for capable computer scientists and many electrical engineers willing to jump sectors.

Emerging technology trends over the last 10-15 years, such as smartphone services, app development, cloud computing, data science, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and cybersecurity, have significantly impacted the global tech industry. While the former account for a significant part of Pakistan’s technology sector, opportunities in electrical engineering-related technologies are minuscule in comparison.

Recently, some of the oldest and once most competitive engineering programs have struggled to attract applicants. A more recently established but highly sought-after public university with a large portfolio of engineering programs has seen a massive drop in applications to all engineering programs except those adjacent to computer science, like software engineering and computer engineering.

Furthermore, some universities in tier-2 and tier-3 cities are receiving many applications for computer science programs but are seeing a large fraction of seats in engineering programs go unfilled.

Engineering, once the hottest ticket in technical education, has been overtaken by computer science and specialized programs in artificial intelligence and data science, potentially becoming a long-term trend unless there are changes in the economy. Most engineering jobs require an active industrial manufacturing base.

The severe energy shortage in the early 2010s, followed by an exorbitant rise in energy costs, forced some Pakistani-owned industries, particularly in the textile sector, to close or move to regional neighbors like Bangladesh and Vietnam. The technological advancements in electrical engineering have had little impact on Pakistani employment opportunities besides a few employers here and there.

A 2023 report by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) titled ‘Disaggregating the Graduate Unemployment in Pakistan’ reported that the average unemployment rate of graduates in Pakistan rose slightly from 14.9 percent in 2018-19 to 16.1 percent in 2020-21. However, for engineering graduates, the same figure more than doubled from 11.2 to 23.5 percent over the same period. For medical graduates, it rose from 6.4 to 10.8 percent.

In conclusion, the evolving landscape of technical education in Pakistan underscores the urgent need for reassessing academic priorities and industrial strategies. While computer science and related fields offer abundant opportunities and align with global technological trends, traditional engineering disciplines, particularly electrical engineering, face dwindling interest and uncertain prospects.

As highlighted in PIDE’s report, the stark rise in unemployment rates among engineering and medical graduates indicates the unfolding de-industrialization and the mismatch between educational outputs and market needs.

Policymakers, educational institutions, and industry stakeholders must collaboratively foster an environment that balances developing emerging technological skills with revitalizing the industrial base. By doing so, Pakistan can bridge the gap between education and employment and pave the way for sustainable economic growth and innovation.

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