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May 24, 2016

Higher education reforms


May 24, 2016

The UK’s Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a global ranking body, has for the first time ever ranked the higher education systems of various countries.

Pakistan’s higher education system was ranked at the very bottom. The US was, as expected, at number one with a normalised score of 100 (while Pakistan’s was an embarrassing 9.2). India with a similar system to Pakistan scored 60.9. Even the much smaller UAE and war-torn Lebanon, along with six other Muslim countries, fared much better than us.

Pakistan’s higher education system has continued to deteriorate over the last many years despite tall claims by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). In 2009, when I took charge as chairman HEC, no Pakistani university was ranked even in the Asian rankings. I made it a top priority to ensure that by the time my four-year term ended, at least five universities had made it to the top 250 of Asia.

According to the QS University Rankings, Pakistan moved up from no university ranked in 2010, to four in 2011, six in 2012, seven 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. Ironically we have now dropped back to seven universities in the 2015 rankings.

In the last two years of my tenure, there was a 50 percent increase in the number of international research publications. Scimago, an independent research database, had forecast in 2013 that if this momentum continued, then by 2018, Pakistan’s research ranking would move up globally from 43 to 27, crossing Asian Tigers Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. Unfortunately this was not to be.

‘Nature’, an internationally reputed organisation, using data of total research papers in natural sciences, in their recent rankings did not list any Pakistani university among top 500 global institutions. Times Higher Education, yet another prestigious organisation, also did not list any Pakistani university among its top 500 universities.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2015-16, under ‘higher education’ Pakistan is ranked at 124th out of 140 countries. This position has not improved since 2013. On the contrary, in the UN Human Development Index, Pakistan went down from 147 last year to 148 this year.

Clearly this is the failure of the HEC, which is responsible for defining the higher education road map of Pakistan. So how worse can it become? And what are the possible remedies?

Foremost of all, we need to revisit the HEC. I had proposed this to the government in 2010. The HEC is governed by an ordinance that was promulgated in 2002 at the recommendation of a task force. Since then, with the new ground realities in the dynamic world of higher education around the world, it has become obsolete.

 In 2010, following the 18th Constitutional Amendment, and at the recommendations of the 18th Amendment Implementation Commission chaired by senators Raza Rabbani and Ishaq Dar, I had proposed the formation of a Higher Education Task Force. This task force, along the lines of the 2002 task force, was to revisit the HEC and come up with recommendations for a new HEC with revised functions – functions that the federal HEC can do better, and those that should be passed on to the provinces. The HEC Ordinance was then to be amended accordingly with the consensus of the stakeholders. The Supreme Court had made a similar observation.

The development and funding of universities belong to the provinces, and not the federal government. The role of the federal government is confined to maintaining standards as defined in the constitution. On the other hand, Quality Assurance must be carried out by an autonomous body, much like the QAA in UK, and not by the HEC. Also, the HEC has no role in ranking universities as that would be a conflict of interest. These anomalies have to be stopped.

Despite its approval by the ‘high-powered committee’, the task force that the HEC had proposed in 2010 was not notified. This delay resulted in parallel HECs being established at the provincial levels, with overlapping and conflicting functions. Even with the present governments, the Council of Common Interest has failed to take any concrete step in the last three years to resolve these conflicts. This tug of war has weakened the whole higher education sector.

Provincial HECs need to be legislated as autonomous professional bodies functioning outside the jurisdiction of the ministries or the bureaucracy. Their role must be confined to development and recurring funding, and in monitoring the standards set by the federal government.

Universities should be given full autonomy. Today, political governments ensure that their blue-eyed boys get appointed as registrars, deans or directors. All appointments must be made internally by the university bodies through a transparent and merit-based mechanism of search committees rather than the government.

Vice Chancellors (VCs), who should be superstars, must be appointed by a search committee of distinguished professionals, which must include at least one member from the private sector and one external to the province. The VC, once appointed, must be evaluated for performance at the end of their third year by an independent external body, and make a recommendation to the appointing authority on their extension or end of contract. During my last year there, the HEC had developed the criteria for assessment of VCs. It probably still lies buried under piles of bureaucracy.

Higher education is the single most important pillar of a knowledge economy. Pakistan’s higher education system needs to be reengineered effectively to perform better according to global standards.

The writer is a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

Email: [email protected]