Telco to Tech: The Shift in Education

In the landscape of higher education, the engineering discipline, particularly electrical engineering, has traditionally reigned supreme, offering a gateway to prosperity for many. A generation ago, high school graduates faced a trinity of career paths promising a middle or upper-middle class existence: pursuing medical degrees, engineering, or a position within Pakistan’s armed forces. Failure to secure a position in one of these paths relegated one to uncertain prospects, pending subsequent career success.

Electrical engineering stood out among engineering disciplines for its versatility and wide-ranging career opportunities. It was a field where university seats rarely went unfilled. However, the landscape of technical education began to shift with the introduction of computer science bachelor’s programs in the mid-90s. Unlike their engineering and medical counterparts, these programs initially operated without the stringent oversight of the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) or the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC), taking a decade before the National Computing Education Accreditation Council (NCEAC) came into effect in 2005.

The allure of the booming global internet and Pakistan’s nascent technology startup ecosystem made computer science an appealing alternative. This shift was further bolstered in the early 2000s with Pakistan’s telecom sector deregulation, intensifying the demand for electrical engineers briefly. Despite a flourishing telecom boom that spanned over a decade, the subsequent slowdown and market saturation led many engineers to seek opportunities elsewhere, including the burgeoning tech startup sector.


Today, cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and cybersecurity, rooted in computer science, dominate the tech landscape. While electrical engineering has also seen advancements in areas like renewable energy and smart grids, the opportunities in computer science far outweigh those in traditional engineering fields in Pakistan’s job market.

Recent trends in educational preferences underscore a significant shift. Once sought-after engineering programs now struggle to attract applicants, facing a decline in favor of fields adjacent to computer science like software engineering. This trend is not localized to top-tier cities but is also evident in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, where engineering seats increasingly go unfilled in contrast to the surging demand for computer science.

The repercussions of this shift extend beyond academia into Pakistan’s economic fabric. The engineering sector’s decline is symptomatic of broader de-industrialization, exacerbated by an energy crisis and shifting global manufacturing bases. The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) report from 2023 starkly illustrates the challenges faced by graduates. While the national unemployment rate for graduates slightly increased, the rate for engineering graduates more than doubled, highlighting a severe misalignment between education and employment opportunities.

The evolving scenario necessitates a critical reassessment of Pakistan’s academic priorities and industrial strategies. To bridge the growing chasm between educational output and market demand, a collaborative effort is needed among policymakers, educators, and industry leaders. Tempering the rapid development of technology-oriented education with a rejuvenation of the industrial sector is essential for aligning Pakistan’s educational ecosystem with its economic needs, ensuring sustainable growth and innovation.

In conclusion, the shift from telco to tech in Pakistan’s educational priorities is a reflection of global technological trends and market demands. Addressing the disconnect between these trends and the country’s industrial capacities is crucial for the future prosperity of its graduates and the overall economy.

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