Shooting for the stars
The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16 were recently announced, with the US taking the lead with six of its universities in the top 10: CalTech (first); Stanford (third), MIT (fifth), Harvard (sixth), Princeton (seventh) and the Chicago (tenth). The UK had three: Oxford (second), Cambridge (fourth) and Imperial College (eighth), and Switzerland’s ETH Zurich (ninth) made the cut too.
Among the regional and Muslim countries, in the top 500 universities, India led with five universities, Turkey with 3, Iran 2, Malaysia 1, and Saudi Arabia 1. Even among the small knowledge-based economies of Asia, Hong Kong had all its six universities listed, Singapore had both its universities, and even Israel had four of its six universities listed. No Pakistani university made it to the top 500 universities of the world.
When I took charge as chairman HEC in 2009, no Pakistani university was ranked even in the Asian rankings. Despite a cut in funding to half as much as what my predecessor received, I made it my number one priority to ensure that by the time my four-year term ended, at least five universities should make to the top 250 of Asia.
According to Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) which ranks Asian universities, Pakistan moved up from zero ranking in 2010, to 4 in 2011, 6 in 2012, 7 in 2013, and by the time the 2014 results were announced at the end of my term, we had 10. This exceeded my target by over 100 percent – despite the cut in funding and the crisis the HEC was struggling through for its survival.
Three weeks ago, QS announced the 2015-16 list of top-ranked Asian universities. In the top 250, only three Pakistani universities could hold their places from the previous 10. Not only that, they also lost their positions compared to their previous rankings.
So why is it that we have slid back to where we were in 2009 – not even one of the 173 universities in Pakistan ranks among the top 500 universities despite a substantial increase in HEC funding by the current government?
It is important to analyse and understand the THE (and QS) criteria to be able to strategise, plan, compete and be ranked at the top. The rankings employ 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide a most comprehensive and balanced comparison, which are grouped according to the following areas (and scores): Teaching (30 percent) with the following breakdown: reputation survey (15 percent), staff-to-student ratio (4.5 percent), doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio (2.25 percent), doctorates awarded-to-academic staff ratio (6 percent), and institutional income (2.25 percent); research (30 percent) with the following breakdown: reputation survey (18 percent), research income (6 percent), and research productivity (6 percent); citations (30 percent); international outlook (7.5 percent) with the following breakdown: international-to-domestic-student ratio (2.5 percent), international-to-domestic-staff ratio (2.5 percent), and international collaboration (2.5 percent); and industry income (2.5 percent). Clearly it can be seen that teaching and research reputation matters the most.
The quantity of students does not matter. CalTech at Pasadena, where I spent my summer, ranked number one in the THE World University Rankings for the fifth consecutive year. CalTech is very small with only 2,200 students but with top-notch faculty (300 in number), including five Nobel laureates, and is the recipient of 57 US National Medal of Science and 32 Nobel laureates from among its faculty and alumni.
My emphasis was to improve the quality of teaching and research by increasing the impact of Quality Enhancement Cells, the number of PhD faculty, the ratio of PhD to non PhD faculty, the number of PhD scholars, research funding, and the number of quality research publications. We introduced for the first time the Institutional Performance Evaluation through which universities could identify their weaknesses, and build upon their strengths for an enhanced reputation. The HEC’s emphasis now is on increasing the number of universities and the number of students in each university instead of improving quality.
To shoot for the stars, we must double the number of ‘quality’ PhD faculty in each university rather than doubling the number of students or universities. Our PhD scholars should be sent only to the top 100 universities of the world rather than to lesser known universities. We had agreements with a number of top ranked universities in the US, where scholars were paying marginal tuition, and in case of top European and Asian universities, no tuition at all. Only when we have top notch PhDs returning back to teach and conduct research in our universities will we reap what we have sowed.
The quality of graduates or publications coming out of Pakistan is not improving our reputation. There are thousands of graduates with paper degrees not worth the piece they are printed on further adding to unemployment. Increasing quantity will only add to the miseries of the graduating student. We have PhD scholars who can hardly teach or conduct quality research, as they have not been exposed to the best. Our junior PhD faculty coming out of lesser ranked universities should be sent to the top 100 universities of the world for at least six months to do post-doc research. This will also create new partnerships with top ranked universities as well as add to the reputation.
Research funding must be at least doubled, and a policy introduced by the government that every ministry must allocate a portion of its budget to fund university research, through properly constituted committees headed by distinguished faculty. When I served as a tenured full professor of engineering at SUNY Buffalo, we were able to acquire over $40 million in competitive research funding from multiple sources (Nasa, DoD, NSF, private industry, and the state) to establish the first Space Power Consortium in the US. Herb Hauptmann, a co-researcher in mathematics working on molecular modelling, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995.
The race to establish world-class universities and raise the level of existing universities is on. It is against these odds that Pakistan needs to strategise its higher education policies to enable us to regain our lost reputation and to become among the best in the world.
The writer is a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission.
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