A landmark document, titled Pakistan in the 21st century: Vision 2030, envisages a “developed, industrialised, just and prosperous Pakistan through rapid and sustainable development in a resource constrained economy by developing knowledge inputs.” The opening paragraph of Vision 2030 emphasises on “knowledge inputs” for the development of Pakistan. “Knowledge inputs” inevitably result into human development, which then lays down the path of sustainable development of a nation.

In today’s knowledge economy, inputs of knowledge cannot be imparted only by focusing on primary and secondary education; higher education has a great role to play in creating knowledge-based development. But how far Pakistan has succeeded in attaining this goal? How higher education is contributing to the development of Pakistan? What role do universities play in the development of a nation? These are a few questions that this scribe will peruse in this article.

International donor agencies, like the World Bank, identify a multitude of key features to achieve and sustain social development and economic growth for the long-term development of a state. These include education, a skilled workforce, information and communication technologies, and innovation. These are the formidable rivets of an economy based on knowledge system. A reliable knowledge economy is possible without focusing on the agenda of developing higher education. In the same line of thought, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011 has also categorised higher education and training, technological growth and innovation as essential for competing in the global economy in order to gain economic enrichment and social development.

It is beyond doubt that education adds to the growth of national income as well as individual earnings in different ways in today’s knowledge economy. While land was the main generator of wealth and income in the agrarian mode of production, machine and capital became of paramount importance in the age of industrial economy. But today, we are witnessing a different scenario.

In today’s information societies, knowledge is a major driver of economic growth and development. Higher education is the main source or raw material of the knowledge-based economy. The production, dissemination and absorption of higher education create differential patterns of growth and development in any society, according to the International Institute for Educational Planning in 2007.

Economic growth currently depends on the capacity to produce knowledge-based goods called services. Also, it is important to mention that the future of knowledge economies depend more on their capacity to produce knowledge through research and development, rather than on knowledge-based goods. Hence, knowledge economies place greater value on and accord higher priority to the production and distribution of knowledge, as mentioned by the International Institute for Educational Planning in 2007. Thus, the institutes of higher learning are major caterers for the human resource development in any society.

There is widespread feeling among policymakers in Pakistan that literacy at the basic level and, at best, at the secondary level is what holds the key to economic growth and development, rather than higher education. Higher education in Pakistan had remained neglected till the Higher Education Commission was established. As a consequence of this thinking, higher education has not configured much in their calculation for reducing the incidence of poverty. It is noteworthy that many other developing countries also suffer because of this ill-conceived approach. This neglect of the higher education is also reflected in our fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals. It shows that we are willingly neglecting a vital input that could ensure for Pakistan a prosperous future.

It is worthwhile to mention that literacy and primary education system rarely becomes an agent of providing jobs necessary for a decent living. It is technical expertise that guarantees a reasonable salary, which means higher standard of living. Owing to this malaise our youth, by and large, have remained unproductive. This lack of productivity on their part makes the country and the youth themselves consumers of goods imported from technologically developed nations.

It should be understood that emphasis on higher education does not, in any case, imply that we should neglect basic education. Rather, underlying this emphasis is the fact that primary and secondary tiers of education must be tied to the higher education system to achieve the development and prosperity that we so covet. Higher education can be made meaningful only when it becomes the last rivet in the chain of the education system gluing together the whole society on productive lines.

The need for highly trained workers is in demand, especially in the framework of globalisation that is encroaching upon every sphere of our lives; the graduate students trained at the institutions of higher learning inevitably have access to jobs carrying enhanced wages. This factor of relative prosperity has a direct bearing on the gross enrolment percentages in colleges and other higher institutions of learning. A recent analysis by J.B.G. Tilak of Indian and cross-national data on colleges and institutions imparting higher education, economic growth and social development, using human growth indicators such as infant mortality and lifespan, shows that higher education has a pivotal role to play in the development of a nation. Tilak proves on empirical grounds that university education improves the income of individuals and plays a significant role in economic growth and has great impact on the reduction of poverty. It is also related to individual growth signs, as it significantly decreases infant death rate and improves lifespan.

In spite of this realisation on the part of policymakers across the world, development programmes in many developing countries like Pakistan continue to focus primarily on basic education programmes; neglecting higher education required for sustainable socio-economic growth. Sustainable socio-economic development entails that knowledge systems focus on individual capital as well as individual development, on financial development as well as on the reduction of poverty, on modern technology as well as conventional methods, and on global as well as local concerns.

The policymakers must not only provide for basic knowledge, but also help to take steps for the promotion of higher education. This will benefit the society at large and have a positive effect on social betterment and economic growth.

In an article published in TheNation titled “The promise of Pakistani middle class”, it was stated that according to the Asian Development Bank report on the rising middle class of South Asia, “the Pakistani middle class has grown to 40 percent of the population, significantly larger than India’s 25 percent; outstripping its neighbour 36.5 percent to 12.8 percent on a comparative scale of growth since 1990. As a level of upward mobility consumerism, the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2010-2011 revealed that the first nine months of the year under review saw rising demand for TV sets to 28.6 percent and vehicle purchase by 14.6 percent.”

The acquisition of these goods indicates that the middle class has been successful in Pakistan it has had the benefit of higher education that is being imparted on a larger scale and more scientific basis since the last decade. Before the establishment of the HEC - main agency for regulating higher education in Pakistan - the consumption patterns were very low due to primitive service sector in Pakistan. According to many social theorists, including this scribe, the middle class is more motivated to obtain university education, which helps inculcate liberalism, openness and demand for a reasonable community development. University education also makes for the realisation of the objectives of democratic system. Illustrating similar worldwide patterns, the rise of Pakistani middle class has proven to be an engine of positive change and development and that has been possible through higher education.

The writer is the vice chancellor of the University of Gujrat. Email: drmnizamuddin@gmail.com