Strengthening of E-Commerce and E-Business in Higher Education Institutes of Pakistan

The advent of modern technologies including personal computers, hardware, software and networks, transformed the way we live, interact and do businesses. The New Normal in the post COVID-19 world has pushed everyone, further into the digital and virtual platforms and today all aspects of life have been transformed to virtual reality one way or the other way.

E-Commerce emerged a narrower perspective of the E-Business, which mainly focused on sales and business through the internet. However, with time E-Commerce involved purchase of goods and services between businesses, households, individual consumers, governments, other public or private organizations which is carried out via the Internet mainly. The global e-customers were 1.5 billion in 2015, which has grown at 8% per annum and reached a mammoth number of 2 billion and it is expected that every 3rd or 4th customer is acquiring their products and services online and through e-commerce. The sales volume through e-commerce has jumped from USD 1.1 trillion to 4 trillion in 5 years. The major sectors which have benefited from the industries like shoes & clothes, consumer electronics and physical media, food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical, furniture and home appliances, special interest products and service.

The e-commerce industry in Pakistan was about US$ 1 billion last year. With a population of 220 Million mostly youth, and in the Post COVID-19, New Normal, there are high potential of e-commerce and e-businesses. However, the low level of computer literacy, non-availability of PayPal and eBay systems for financial transactions in Pakistan, lack of legislation and non-existing of conducive environment, are some of the major impediments in the way of digital transformation of Pakistan. At the other hand, in India the e-commerce has increased from USD 3.8 billion in 2009 to 38 billion in 2017 and expected to reach US$ 200 billion by year 2026. Pakistan e-commerce index has slightly improved from 117 in 2018 to 115 in 2020 out of 151 countries, as compared to Iran 45, Saudi Arabia 49, Malaysia 31.

Role of Universities and HEIs in developing e-commerce:

Higher Education Institutes normally deal with terminal degrees to provide employment to the graduates. Hence the Universities have to be closely connected to the job market, businesses and employers. The HEC job market and Employers’ Perception Survey conducted by Grant Thornton in 2016 revealed that the graduates from Pakistani Universities lack the practical and on hand capacity, inquisitiveness and research, critical and analytical thinking, effective interpersonal communication, use of modern technologies and tools, effective writing skills etc. These challenges are more dominant in the teaching and learning of professional degrees, where the hands on experience has been minimal over the years. The recent initiatives of Pakistan Engineering Council and other accreditation councils for introducing Outcome Based Education and Assessment (OBA/OBE) is a great leap forward in this direction but still there is long way to real benefits to the society. To enhance the role of HEIs in promotion of e-commerce and technology enabled employment, some important initiatives are required both at Federal/HEC level and University level.

1. Enhancing the courses of e-commerce in the curriculum of undergrad programs

The undergrad program is normally more rigorous and include four major components. Firstly, the Social and humanities courses, normally include English Communication, Pakistan studies, Islamic studies and some basic management & sociology etc. The second group of courses are related to computing and mathematics. The third group of courses are core courses, which generally include discipline specific breadth courses. The fourth and more important group is related to elective or discipline related depth. For instance, in computer science, there can be many groups of depth courses like Artificial Intelligence, e-commerce, cloud computing, e-learning etc. There is a need to introduce a core course of e-commerce to students of all disciplines.

2. Review of curriculum for e-commerce

The current courses of e-commerce offered at undergrad levels are more basic and theoretical, with little connectivity with the businesses. All such courses need gross root level review by an expert committee from academia, Government and industry, so that these are closely connected to national and international trends and challenges. Some of the important topics which needs to be included are, potential Benefits & Limitations of E-Commerce, Impact of E-Commerce on Business Models, E-Commerce Applications, E-Marketing Strategy, E-Banking, applications of Mobile Commerce., Web Security and Search Engine and Portals.

3. Strengthening of technology platforms for e-commerce

The technology platform comprised of hardware, software and networks have to be strong enough to support the transactions. The best e-Commerce platform is the one that successfully delivers the outcomes and objectives that you have set for your business. The platform requirements with nature of business like B2B (Business to Business) and B2C (Business to Consumer) would need different systems and platforms. A strong, reliable, affordable and high speed internet is always a need of the e-commerce. A good e-commerce platform is comprised of Robust catalogue, Flexible pricing, Website personalization, Flexible shipping, e-Commerce analytics, Google Merchant integration, Facebook integration, Customer review system, Automatic tax and account calculation, Multiple payment gateways, Single customer view, Headless commerce etc.

4. Offering specialized e-commerce related certificate courses.

E-commerce cannot be established as standalone degree, as the it is more skill oriented. Hence Universities can design and develop specialized certificate courses of 3-6 months under their professional development and Lifelong learning institutes. The major components of this certificate course can be introduction to e-commerce, web designing, graphic designing, creation of online business, development and deployment of e-commerce website, Social media contents creation and e-commerce marketing etc. National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC) has designed a 6-month intensive course of level 4, which is comprised of 4 modules of total of 803 contact hours with 200 hour class work and 604 hours of work. The four modules of the certificate program are, Business Analysis, Web Designing / Development, Quality Assurance and E-marketing. Such programs can be further customized to the needs and demands of the market.

5. Skilled and trained faculty for teaching of e-commerce

Teaching of professional degrees need good academics and practitioners in various fields. The faculty appointment system at HEC, is mainly based on qualification and academic experience in teaching and research institutes. This deprives, the experienced non PhD practitioners to share their skills and knowledge in the emerging technologies with the students. The lack of hands on experience and practical knowledge with majority of faculty in the emerging technologies has been reported time and again. There is a need to bring the concept of Practising Professor from industry on contractual arrangements. For teaching and training of relevant faculty for e-commerce, experienced and market oriented teachers will be required.

6. Post Graduate Diploma in E-commerce and E-business

The concept of post graduate diploma (PGD) was mainly initiated in the professional fields to bring interdisciplinary flexibility at one hand and specialization at the other hand. A number of graduates from social sciences and natural sciences, changed their track to computing sciences, through the track of post grad diploma. HEC requires that the post grad diploma must be comprised of two semesters and 30 credit hours course/lab work minimum. The format of PGD is more rigorous, yet its application for transforming to e-commerce specialization, would need some deliberation.

Connecting the E-commerce programs with industry and E-businesses

The real success of all professional and degree programs is their linkage with the practical expertise and connecting with job markets. In E-commerce and E-businesses, the students have to be connected with online businesses and portals, like Amazon.com, Daraz.com and Alibaba.com etc. These major online market places, also provide intensive training and development of students for using the opportunities of online businesses and e-commerce. The role of Chambers of Commerce and Industries, Pakistan IT Board and Pakistan Software Export Board, NATTC, and TEVTAs is very critical for the success of e-commerce in Pakistan. The Offices of the Research Innovation and Commercialization (ORICs) of HEIs can play a pivotal role for connecting these programs with the leading online businesses and market places. This can even bring source of revenue for universities by creating partnerships with such graduates, after incubating them for such businesses.

E-commerce Initiatives at Gilgit Baltistan

It is worth mentioning that KIU has established Technology Incubation Centre jointly with Punjab IT Board (PITB) and Federal Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, through their Subsidiary Special Communication Organization (SCO), the only Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Gilgit Baltistan. HEC can hunt some angle and start-up funding for such incubates in the areas of e-commerce. KIU-SCO Tech Incubation Centre is offering short courses on web design, freelancing, e-commerce. Under the Tech-incubation Centre, free offices spaces, training workshops, business model development, legal assistance, mentorship and networking opportunities shall be provided. At the same time, KIU has established first Freelance Centre at GB with the support of Punjab IT Board (PITB), which will offer their courses mostly for females of the region, from June 2021. Earlier, it was planned to start from March 2021, but due COVID-19, restrictions, it has been delayed.

(Prof. Dr. Attaullah Shah, Vice Chancellor, Karakoram International University GB)

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