There is no denying the fact that the knowledge economy drives the global economy. For Pakistan, education is the only gateway to the country’s prosperity and success and serves as a fundamental tool in bringing us at par with the highly competitive comity of nations.
With this, the role of the higher education sector in shaping a nation’s resolve towards its envisioned goals becomes all the more crucial and pertinent. In the developed world, universities are now considered to be pre-market hubs of innovation, quality and the future of any society. Higher education is believed to be the embodiment of what any country has been through in terms of its qualified human resources and what it anticipates in the coming years.
Pakistan’s story in this sector isn’t just a tale of success. Instead, it is the epitome of a national resolve to develop the country on the socio-economic front and foster the pride of achievement on the national and international levels.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has changed the face and fate of the higher education sector during the past decade. The path of a journey that started in 2002 has been paved with glory, success and brilliance. Despite a whole spectrum of challenges on the local and international fronts, this sector has been booming with the persistent efforts of our academia, university managements and students and, above all, the unflinching support of the government.
At a time when college and varsities fees across the world are unaffordable and student loans unbearable, Pakistan has taken a leap in recent times to encourage our best and brightest minds to pursue higher education and play a key role in the socio-economic development of the country.
Since its inception, the HEC started its journey with only 59 universities in country, 2.6 percent gross enrolment, 800 publications and 3,110 PhDs. The number has soared to new heights and now higher education institutions stand at 188, with nine percent gross enrolment, 12,000 publications and 11,960 PhDs. The most encouraging point is that the then 32 percent female enrolment has now reached 48 percent. This is primarily because of the HEC’s resolve to promote equal higher education opportunities and maintain gender equity.
The story of scholarships represents a badge of honour as the HEC has so far awarded over 251,000 scholarships to Pakistani students, which include indigenous, overseas and need-based scholarships as well as those under the Prime Minister’s Fee Reimbursement Scheme. The PM’s fee waiver initiative has turned out to be major success for students of remote areas. As a result, the financial factor that keeps students from pursuing the dream of higher education has been ruled out. Another flagship programme of the incumbent government has been the PM’s Laptop Scheme under which about 0.3 million laptops have been distributed since 2013 while 0.2 million will be distributed in the next year or so.
We have also made inroads across the globe. A report issued in 2016 by Thomson Reuters, titled ‘Pakistan: Another BRIC in the Wall’, listed Pakistan as a country with the highest percentage of highly-cited papers as compared to Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. In recognition of its initiatives and services for the development of the higher education sector, the HEC was awarded the 3G – Global Good Governance – Excellence in Higher Education Award 2016 by the Global Donors Forums.
Over the years, we have also methodically focused on the needful distribution of the budget. About 41 percent of the HEC’s development funding goes towards human resource development; 33 percent towards ensuring equitable access and about 23 percent towards the development of information and communication technology (ICT). For infrastructural development, the HEC has allocated funds for the construction of 505 academic blocks in universities. Of these, 357 blocks have been completed and 148 blocks are under-construction. Our target is to ensure the establishment of at least one higher learning institution in each district by 2019 without any compromises on the quality of education.
The development of ICT has also become the need of the hour. The HEC has set up a cloud data centre by connecting a large number of universities and colleges in various cities under the Pakistan Education and Research Network. Another landmark initiative is PERN, which is in its third phase.
Keeping future challenges in mind, the HEC plans to establish four new education projects pertaining to the Smart University Programme, the Education Cloud and Services, PERN-3 and the Higher Education Information Management System (HEIMS).
The outcomes of one of our flagship programmes – the Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation (ORICs) and the business incubation centres and the Technology Development Fund – are remarkable. The HEC also plans to establish the National Institute of Applied Technology to accelerate technology-readiness.
The idea and development of the HEC’s Vision 2025 will go a long way in changing the landscape of higher education sector in the country in the next decade. With this vision, the HEC envisions a consolidated higher education sector with enhanced equitable access, excellence in university leadership, governance and management and increased research, innovation and commercialisation activities.
The incumbent government has been gracious enough to increase the budget for higher education, which now touches Rs106 billion. However, it would be better not to entirely rely on the government. Universities should have multiple sources of funds. Everybody needs to play a role to bring our higher education sector at par with that of the developed world.
Another painstaking initiative of the HEC is the formation of an online attestation system and it has formulated the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and the Pakistan Qualification Register (PQR) as a part of the NQF to enable students and their parents to make informed decisions. This will stop the menace of suspicious, fake or fraud in the issuance or clearance of degrees that in the past had been point of contention on several fronts. In addition, the closure of about 30 PhD programmes after the quality monitoring teams across the country are also key steps towards ensuring quality that is in line with the operating procedures set up by the HEC.
Despite all the success we have had so far, there are plenty of challenges that still loom over us. The rising trend of radicalisation of campuses and the premature steps taken to form provincial higher education bodies without much preparation are the challenges which, if not addressed promptly and smartly, may begin to affect us severely.
As far as radicalism is concerned, only a collective effort can erode this menace. The responsibility of dealing with it lies with all members of our society, including parents, teachers and religious scholars. Given the manner in which Pakistanis have responded to this problem during the last decade, we are hopeful that it will be wiped out completely.
The issue of the devolution of the HEC has yet to be decided by the Council of Common Interests. But the abrupt formation of such bodies at the provincial level without a proper groundwork has already started to create issues. The situation could worsen if it isn’t handled properly. Our goal is to provide higher education facilities without compromising on quality. We must also make the higher education sector free of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles so that it can play the role of game-changer in Pakistan and make the country stand out in a competitive world.
The writer is the chairman of the Higher Education Commission.