Professor Dr Niaz Ahmad Akhtar became vice-chancellor of the University of Punjab two years ago. In an interview, he outlined his vision for research, quality education and practical knowledge, and that how the university can make its mark on national and international levels. Dr Niaz is a profound academician and has received Sitara-e-Imtiaz from the government of Pakistan. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up and your early life? I hail from Dera Ghazi Khan. I got my degree in chemical engineering from Punjab University and did PhD from the University of Leeds, UK. I have previously served as the rector of National Textile University Faisalabad and VC University of Engineering and Technology, Taxila.What were your aspirations when you took charge of the office? If you compare the reports, you will see that when I took charge as VC in 2018, the university’s research quality was already ranked among the top universities. But in these two years we have succeeded in making a 10% increase in its ranking, which means we have made a significant progress. I see it as a collective effort of all my colleagues and I’m grateful to the PU staff working tirelessly to contribute towards this success.It has been seen that research facilities have improved during your tenure. Would you like to shed some light? My main focus is on quality of the research being conducted at PU. I believe that quality matters more than quantity, so it is important that whatever work my students are doing as part of their research should have a positive impact on the society. With this in mind, we have been working to promote authentic research and this is one reason that our research quality has greatly improved within the last two years. Recently we made it to the list of top research institutions in field of natural sciences.Unfortunately, the teacher to student ratio at Punjab University is not up to the mark yet. What are your plans to deal with this issue? We did face this issue in past. However, since two years, we have greatly overcome it and now we are approaching 1:20 teacher-to-students ratio, which is the internationally accepted proportion. More seats for faculty are being created and hiring is in pipeline to ensure a fair ratio between the number of students and faculty members teaching them. We will soon be having a meeting of syndicate to confirm the appointments of the new faculty members forwarded by the selection board.How do you see this sudden shift from conventional education system to virtual teaching?Punjab University was the first one among Pakistani educational institutions to shift to virtual teaching system after the pandemic broke out and on campus classes came to a halt. We devised a full-fledged system to ensure that the classes go on smoothly. Proper training of faculty, both regular and visiting, was conducted online, and guidelines were provided to teachers and students to arrange and attend online classes. So far, all departments have wrapped up the semester and soon will be going for online exams.Do you think online exams are a better and easier option than conventional system of examination?At this point, we are ready for anything that the government decides to go with. We initially planned reopening the university for summer semester and revision classes in mid-July, but since the situation hasn’t improved enough, we are going for online exams. Yet we are prepared for conventional exams too, we have two types of question papers, so if allowed, we can conduct on-campus exams too.How do you plan to ensure the effectiveness of online classes and exams?I’d like to make it clear that online classes can never be a substitute for conventional system of education and physical classrooms, but since the circumstances forced us into this, we had to make the best use of the available resources to keep the students in loop and ensure that their studies are not affected.We have had more than 80% attendance of students. Considering the fact that we were unprepared for this kind of crisis, I think we have succeeded in managing the situation fairly well and have done the best we could do in times of a global emergency to keep our work flow going.What steps have you taken to facilitate students belonging to remote areas during the pandemic?We understand the concerns of the students residing in remote areas, so we have given them the options. Such students can freeze their semester and resume later when the situation gets better. The same is valid for exams. Any student who has such genuine concerns can ask us to defer the examination and their exam will be taken afterwards.If the current situation continues even after August/September, how are you going to deal with it?As I’ve already told you, we are prepared for both kinds of educational systems, so we will move on with whatever the government decides. Since we have already wrapped up this semester and the courses have been completed effectively, I think it would not be difficult if we have to carry on with the online system. So even if, God forbid, on-campus classes do not resume in September, we will continue our academic year as per our routine, so that the precious time of our students is not wasted.How are you going to cope with the decrease in educational budget of universities?Decrease in educational budget is not going to have much impact on PU, since around 75% of our budget comes from our own resources and only 25-30% comes from the government’s side. We generate our own revenue so even if the government cuts down its contribution, we will manage it by reducing our expenses.Many universities have announced bankruptcy and are increasing fees. What are your plans to keep the educational expenses nominal?We are not going to make any changes in our fee structure. We have tried to facilitate the students by keeping our fees nominal. Even amidst this COVID19 crisis, we waived off a significant amount of fee that was collected as charges for transport, medical care, hostel, library funds etc.Would you like to share any updates on the progress of PU medical college that was announced earlier?This week, we will be having a meeting to discuss the design of the medical college. You can say, from our side it is almost done, as soon as the architectural process is approved by NESPAK, the construction will begin.What role do you see for PU to play on national and international stage?PU holds a role model status among all Pakistani educational institutions. So we focus on all aspects that are imperative to make PU the leading institute in the region. We are always striving to contribute to the country’s good in whatever way we can. At international level, we have started to collaborate with the topmost institutions of the world. Numerous MOUs have been signed with the globally leading organizations and institutions.