Commenting on various aspects of higher education in his article, ‘Hassles of higher education’, published in these pages on July 8, Dr Naazir Mahmood mentioned the substandard quality of research produced by academics engaged in the higher education sector.
With regard to motivating the faculty to increase the number of publications, the writer has appropriately pointed out that “we must not forget that the number of substandard publications has increased manifold during the past decade”. While the issue of the lack of quality publications has been frequently highlighted by a number of stakeholders who are genuinely concerned about the status of higher education, as Dr Naazir Mahmood has noted, there has been no concrete initiative from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to this effect.
There is no doubt that the higher education sector is faced with miscellaneous challenges, such as the lack of financial and institutional autonomy, political interference, dirty internal politics among academics themselves and their lobbies, and consistent bickering between teaching and non-teaching cadres. Some of these issues cannot be resolved by the HEC as they pertain to our deep-rooted governance malaise, socio-cultural ills, and human behavioural aspects. However, the HEC has the potential, mandate and necessary wherewithal at its disposal to strengthen the quality of teaching and research in institutions of higher learning.
Here, I would like to focus primarily on one issue: substandard publications and the thinking and analytical levels of our academic elites. Let’s consider some articles published by academics, including vice-chancellors, deans and department heads of universities. I don’t want to name the writers. The purpose is to show that the quality of higher education and research is abysmal. It is embarrassing to disseminate academic work published in Pakistani journals of social sciences.
While there are also many genuine researchers who are committed to publishing quality work, the promotion criteria prescribed by the HEC and adopted by most universities compel them to publish in substandard journals rather than esteemed international publications. If an academic is unwilling or unable to join the race, he/she is most likely to suffer as, in most cases, quantity matter more than quality.
Before coming up with possible remedies to deal with the declining trend of research and education, we must read some excerpts from articles published by academics in social science journals. All this material must have been thoroughly proofread at various stages in the publication process. But in these cases, it seems that there is hardly any time to double-check whether the construction of sentences and the language employed make any sense.
In addition to grammatical blunders that could be noticed by any good student attending an English medium school (barring state-run institutions where the standards of education are equally dismal), there is rarely a valid argument backed by data and facts in a proper conceptual and theoretical framework. It is quite unfortunate that even an opinion pieces get published as research papers rather than commentaries if the writer is among the ‘high ups’ in the university where the same journal is published.
For instance, one paper begins with a grammatical error: “Pakistan is one of the leading aid recipient from US”. The writer has served as a VC of a public-sector university and has remained in a top position in the HEC. Such errors aren’t too unusual. The paper is a ‘pleasure’ to read and readers can judge the quality of language as well as analysis in this piece of ‘scholarly work’.
Another paper, which was published in 2013 and authored by a VC and professor, begins with these words: “Pakistan and India has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance, both historically and recent years. These countries have importance to forwarding US security interests in the world of oil”. Like the other works, this paper is also replete with grammatical mistakes and invalid arguments that are premised on fallacious assumptions rather than concrete data and factual information.
Let’s take another example: “Green marketing as a new concept gained a high momentum, mostly because due to change of behavioural change in consumer actions”.
In addition to obvious grammatical errors, one piece of research work incorrectly mentions Swat as a city, Swat is a district and Mingora is the main city while the district headquarters of Swat is in Saidu Sharif.
Another dean has written this: “Throughout the modern human civilisation, oceanic and sea routes always remained a chief pool of natural resources and has been offering abundant prospects for the amelioration of national interests…Pakistan is lucky to have two important ports of the world and one is the Gwadar port”.
The esteemed author adds that: “Therefore, Gwadar port, because of its ‘warm water’, has been of immense importance for Greeks, the Arabs, the Portuguese, the Persians, the Russians and the British in different periods of history”.
While I may not be an historian, I have never read anything anywhere that suggests that Gwadar was used as a strategic port by ancient empires or by colonial powers. For most of its history, Gwadar has remained a small- to medium-sized settlement and its economy has largely depended on fishing. Also, the same author further extols Gwadar by asserting that “Gwadar is comparable with the cities of Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. Being an alternate to Dubai World Port, one needs to be located in close proximity”. There is no data and analysis on what basis Gwadar has been compared with the aforementioned cities.
Although no academic work is perfect, there must at least be visible signs that the published article has been subjected to considerable internal and external evaluation. The HEC needs to ensure that editors and other staff members have diligently followed the anonymous double-blind peer review process so that shortcomings can be rectified during the various stages of the publication process.
But in most cases, there is no such process. A very clear testimony of this is that we find a majority of papers appearing in journals published by universities where writers are serving as either deans or professors. This is construed to be a conflict of interest, especially in the absence of a credible review mechanism.
The writer is a postdoctoral researchfellow at the German Development
Institute at Bonn, Germany.