Recently, government officials from Pakistan showed their willingness and resolved to learn from the experience of the United Arab Emirates for establishing the first-ever university entailing the concept of artificial intelligence (AI). This university, namely Mohammad Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), is scheduled to start its operations in September 2020. Importantly, the UAE is considered as the first country on the globe having a functional ministry of artificial intelligence established since 2017 with the task of saving 50% of governmental operational procedures through a ‘strategy 2031’. According to an official of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, there are nine artificial intelligence centers of excellence in different universities of the country. The outcome of this new experience is yet to be determined. However, the cognizance of new technology/skill paves the way for its future implementations, and such efforts are highly commendable. Besides artificial intelligence implementation, other driving components of the fourth industrial revolution are the internet of things (IoT), robotics, virtual, and augmented realities. Recent World Economic Forum Report suggests that to cope with the realities of technological advancements; it is mandatory to train the workforce in a variety of domains like complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, team coordination, emotional intelligence, proper judgment linked with informed decision making, and service orientation. These trained individuals described in terms of human capital are the real wealth and strength of any nation on this globe.

The Government of Pakistan is highly conscious of impending future challenges manifested through a variety of steps toward establishing a “Digital Pakistan.” The Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence & Computing (PIAIC) mainly focusing on AI, data science, cloud, native computing, edge computing, blockchain, augmented reality, and the internet of things (IoT) very much aligns with challenging demands of a digitalized society. Recently established National Skills University Islamabad could take this initiative to a new horizon through institutionalizing graduate and undergraduate programs, further strengthening the PIAIC initiative incorporating the vision of digitalization. This federally chartered university mandated to broaden the horizon of skills education is designed to meet the contemporary challenges and fulfills the demands identified by the World Economic Forum Report, as mentioned above.

Importantly, the initiative “Digital Pakistan” further strengthens resolve by the Government towards preparing the nation for current and future prosperity. In this initiative, among the five priority areas, digital skilling and literacy, digital infrastructure, access and connectivity, and e-government would require prioritized and focused training to run the envisioned infrastructure of “Digital Pakistan.” Such efforts will finally open the doors for innovation and entrepreneurship of billion dollars businesses as being envisioned. Importantly, at the demographic level, Pakistan is passing through an era of vibrant and energetic human resources ready to accept digital realities. Approximately 60% of the nation in the age group of 15-29 is an opportunity to be seized for the pre-digitalized country with National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA) initiative. Imagine after ten years, when this group will start touching senile age, and we must prepare for their healthcare and better living.

Now the next challenge is, harnessing the brute force of youth on the passage to the future older nation. The Government resolve to create a prosperous future of the existing younger nation can be through effective and highly efficient physical and cognitive learning – Skill education to cope with the digitalized world. Here comes the role of stakeholders, and the only and lonely to do the job is academia starting from non-formal/informal basic education setups to higher education institutes (HEIs). It is hard to refute the fact that skill education factor relatively got lesser prominence in the higher education scenario. Recently, a focused approach towards this avenue is manifested through setting up two universities with dedicated tasks for skill education- the National Skills University (NSU)  and the National University of Technology (NUTECH), both having their head offices in Islamabad. These HEIs possess the federal mandate of producing graduates with necessary skills in their domains of educational programs. Importantly, the NSU has closely liaised with the National Vocational & Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC) – a body having the federal mandate of regulating and facilitating Vocational & Technical Training. The HEC plans to introduce mandatory discipline/domain skill training for every program under its umbrella. Few additional HEIs in provincial setups are also being established and strengthening of existing for skill-based education is ongoing. The Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training in a recent briefing appreciated proposal by the Vice Chancellor’s National Skills University to have an inventory of requisite skills and relevant existing programs besides identifying 21st-century skills related academic programs required in the country. A National and Emerging Skills Conference of the stakeholders with focused roundtable discussions culminating in recommendations can assist the objectives of producing a skilled and highly productive workforce for “Digital Pakistan.”

The primary focus of the NSU, having national skills education mandate, is to impart contemporary skills education having essential physical and cognitive learning. However, through its two-prong strategy, indigenous skills will also be reviewed, protected, and proper commercialization avenues explored. This is necessary; otherwise, a significant segment of the population with these skills will become obsolete. Towards this, the idea of “Digital Skills Village” along with partners and highly relevant organizations like NAVTCC and several others have been conceived and contemplated. This initiative will not only preserve indigenous beneficial expertise, instead will give an impetus to existing skills and their modernization to cope with the realities of emerging technologies.  

The National Skills University, Islamabad, believes in the investment in human capital, mainly the young population of the country. Moreover, the university vision for its future graduates (human capital) aligns with definition by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development “the knowledge, skills, competences, and other attributes embodied in individuals that are relevant to economic activity.” This definition and associated activities are more relevant for a prosperous “Digital Pakistan” even now and onwards.