Monday July 15, 2024

Higher education in turmoil

By Atta-ur-Rahman
June 01, 2019

A recent article in a newspaper suggested a scheme that would make the universities of Pakistan low-level community colleges focusing largely on undergraduate teaching. This will ensure that Pakistan can never become a world power in science, technology and innovation.

If this plan is allowed to be implemented, it will be a national disaster. We must strengthen the quality of undergraduate education as well as postgraduate education research. Both sectors depend on high-quality faculty, so the primary focus of the HEC must remain on faculty development. The HEC sent only about 1700 scholars for training abroad during 2013-2018; this number should have been ten-fold higher. The expansion of universities without adequate attention to availability of qualified faculty has dealt a fatal blow to the higher education sector.

Since the formation of the Higher Education Commission in 2002, there have been spectacular successes and, more recently, equally significant collapses. Not a single Pakistan university had ever been ranked among the top 500 of the world till the HEC came into existence. From zero international rankings in 2002, several of our universities gained world rankings between 200 and 500 during 2002 to 2008 according to the Times Higher Education ranking system. They included Karachi University at 223, NUST at 250 and UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world in the natural sciences rankings, while NUST had an overall ranking of 370 in the general rankings. This was no small achievement. Unfortunately, we slipped badly after 2008 due to budgetary cuts and more recently due to bad policies so that there is not a single university today ranked among the top 500 of the world in the same ranking system.

An astonishing fact not widely known is that as a result of HEC reforms Pakistan overtook India in per capita research output in 2017. In 2002 Pakistan had only 53 research publications in internationally recognized high quality 'Impact factor' journals per ten million population as compared 186 publications from India (Web of Science data). We were almost 400 percent behind India. This started to change dramatically with the emphasis on high quality research laid by HEC, and Pakistan overtook India in 2017. In 2018, Pakistan had 916 publications per capita as compared to 708 from India, about 30 percent ahead. What caused this remarkable change?

First, the criteria of appointments and promotions of faculty members in universities were toughened in line with internationally accepted ‘best-practices’, with publications in only internationally recognised high quality journals being counted towards promotion. Prior to 2002, in the University Grants Commission era, publications in any journals would be recognized. Secondly, a new 'tenure track' system of appointments was introduced under which faculty members would be appointed on contract with much higher salaries for three years only, and the renewal of contract would depend on international evaluation of their performance.

Third, the emphasis on quality rather than numbers discouraged the 'cut and paste' culture that prevailed previously and it was almost completely eliminated by ensuring that all publications including PhD theses would be vetted through a special software made available to all universities that would instantaneously detect any copied material published previously. Most importantly, emphasis was placed on induction of high-quality faculty and thousands of our brightest young men and women were sent to top universities abroad. They were offered jobs several months before their return, and they could have access to research grants of up to $100,000 for which they could apply a year before the completion of their study periods abroad. An 'Open Access' system was introduced so that researchers could have free access to sophisticated instrumentation for analytical work, with the HEC footing the bills. A digital library was introduced to provide free access to some 65,000 books and 25,000 international journals.

This progress even led to alarm bells in India and a detailed presentation was made in 2006 to the Indian PM about the progress in Pakistan. India subsequently decided to follow in Pakistan’s footsteps. Accordingly, a new organization – the Higher Education Commission of India – has been established to replace the Indian UGC.

A large number of international observers visited Pakistan, including the UN, USAID and World Bank education experts. The USAID team of educationists, after critical review, concluded: “One of the most striking aspects of [the] HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities". A very positive review of the higher education system of Pakistan was also carried out by Prof Michael Rode, chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development. Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading company which publishes the Web of Science and international citation statistics, compared Pakistan to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) and concluded that the rate of improvement in highly cited articles from Pakistan far exceeded that from any of the BRIC countries.

Unfortunately, many within Pakistan are focusing only on undergraduate education and forget about postgraduate education and research. There have been recent decisions by the Higher Education Commission which led to the suspension of major national initiatives that had led to the transformation mentioned above. Key initiatives that have been halted by the HEC include: (a) Start-up Research Grants Programme for fresh PhD holders; (b) Grants for repair and maintenance of scientific equipment; (c) the Free Access to Scientific Instrumentation Programme; (d) Research travel grant for university faculty and scholars; and (e) Grants to organize seminars, conferences and training workshops.

Most importantly, the flagship foreign scholarships programme for PhD-level training has been severely curtailed. This has resulted in mediocrity being perpetuated as the best way to destroy the higher education system is to ensure that qualified faculty is not available. The existing faculty is becoming deeply frustrated due to lack of facilities such as access to research grants and to scientific instrumentation and many have left Pakistan. To stifle the PhD programme, a cumbersome verification system for PhD-level faculty has been introduced, intruding into the autonomy of universities and aimed at frustrating those returning from abroad from enrolling PhD students without HEC verification.

It is time for our government to take notice and try to revive the higher education system. There is no better way to destroy a country than to destroy its education systems.

The writer is co-chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation, a former federal minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.