A circular issued by the HEC last week urges every higher education institution (HEI) to celebrate the commission’s contribution towards national development. The circular is full of numbers that indicate how Pakistan has risen to new heights in research and education during the past 15 years owing to the relentless efforts of the HEC in every imaginable direction.
To fool someone with statistics and play with them is neither a new game nor a tactic that is confined to any particular field. Numbers conceal reality as much as they reveal it and hence they need to be critically examined and put into a proper context so as to grasp the full story.
The HEC claims – and somewhat rightly so – that after its birth in 2002, the number of HEI has gone up from 59 to 188, student enrollment has increased from 0.26 million to 1.39 million, a total of 187,250 scholarships have been awarded to students who belong to underdeveloped areas, the number of publications during the last five years has increased by 41 percent to 12,000, and most importantly, 500,000 laptops have been distributed to students who are engaged in pursuing higher qualifications in natural and social sciences in addition to large budgetary allocations for development projects.
One would not dare contest these facts and figures. After all, something has to be shown to the public to earn legitimacy and continued support from the government. What is, however, missing from the long list of the HEC’s achievements is the number of HEIs present in the list of top 500 universities in the world, the number of patents filed in the country and outside, the enrollment of foreign students, the innovations introduced in the agricultural, industrial and services sectors and the quality of graduates produced each year by 188 universities.
The HEC unduly puts emphasis on what goes into the system (inputs) rather than what the system produces (outputs) and its ultimate impact on society and the economy. For example, every time one hears a public official of the HEC (notably its chairman), things like budget allocations for a particular purpose such as research and development, scholarships, laptops and the number of new universities opened and old ones upgraded are highlighted. The quality of education and research would be played as background music or would be dumped altogether in the heap of numbers. Success, for most government organisations – including the HEC – means an increase in inputs, which is most often consumed inside by ‘public servants’ in the name of serving the public.
The mission of the HEC was to make higher education relevant, accessible, and affordable. But none of these goals have been genuinely pursued. Barring a few exceptions, higher education remains detached from local conditions. Much of what is being taught has eurocentric underpinnings with no relevance to the local socio-economic realities. The graduates generally know more about others than their own peculiar circumstances. The natural sciences can and should aspire for universal laws. But social sciences and humanities have to be contextualised in order to produce positive outcomes. The issue of accessibility has been aggravated through disastrous distance education and the unfettered growth of kitchen campuses.
Besides the problems of infrastructure and administration, higher education in Pakistan is founded on weak pillars. It operates on the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ principle. How can we expect higher education to produce world-class scientists and professionals from students who are trained like robots during their formative years? Primary and secondary education should have received equal attention from the provincial governments in order to modernise the curricula, train teachers and create an environment of interactive learning. Instead of forcing students to strive for good grades, the education system should encourage critical thinking, skill development and ethical conduct.
The writer is the director of the Institute of Modern Studies.