Saturday May 28, 2022

Supporting universities

October 16, 2019

National security is no longer connected only with the sophisticated weapons available to a country. It is directly concerned with economic security. That, in turn, is dependent on the quality of education, science, technology, innovation and the ability of countries to manufacture and export high technology products.

The remarkable developments in the higher education sector, triggered by the higher education reforms introduced by us during 2006-2008, have led to an unprecedented growth in high quality research publications in Pakistan. The focus of the HEC reforms was to improve the quality of higher education and research, provide greater access to higher education, and provide education relevant to national needs and international demands.

A number of good universities have emerged as a result of the substantial investments made in the higher education sector during 2002-2008, which include NUST and COMSATS in Islamabad and IBA in Karachi and Sukkur, as well as the Virtual University in Lahore. The decision taken in 2005 by us to support private-sector institutions led to a good engineering faculty being established in LUMS Lahore. The establishment of the Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN) in 2004 brought a revolution by providing free access of 65,000 textbooks and 25,000 international journals to students, teachers and researchers.

The policies introduced in 2003-2008 were appreciated and continued by the HEC heads that followed me. Dr Akram Sheikh and Dr Sohail Naqvi played a key role in the transformation of the higher education sector during that period. These policies had a major impact on the improvement of the research environment in the country, so that there was an exponential growth in research publications in high quality impact factor journals. According to the Web of Science data extracted by Prof Raheel Qamar, rector COMSATS, Pakistan was about 400 percent behind India in research output on a per capita basis, but overtook India in 2017 and was about 20 percent ahead of India by 2018 – no mean achievement.

A satellite (Paksat 1) was placed in space with some of its capacity directed to education. Quality Assurance cells were established within the HEC and in all universities. Innovation was supported through technology parks. Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation (ORIC) were established in universities.

The single biggest contribution to the improvement of the higher education research environment was the emphasis of the HEC programmes on the development and absorption of high quality faculty. About 11,000 of our brightest students were selected and sent abroad for training at PhD and post-doctoral levels to leading universities of the world. The world’s largest Fulbright programme was initiated with 50 percent of the funds being invested by Pakistan. A special programme of scholarships was initiated for students who were good enough to secure admissions to the top 50 universities of the world but did not have funds to study there.

There was a remarkable 97.5 percent return rate for students sent abroad during that period. This excellent result was for several reasons. First, the salary structures were dramatically changed under a new ‘tenure track’ system. This involved excellent salaries for professors, about four times those of federal ministers, but linked to international performance assessment after three and six years before grant of tenure.

Second, it was ensured that they would have jobs on arrival. Third, the returning students were offered research grants of up to $ 100,000 for which they could apply one year before their return to Pakistan. They were also given free access to international literature through the digital library. Under a novel scheme, the first in the world, they were granted free access to sophisticated instruments installed anywhere in the country with the analytical charges being paid by the HEC.

The rapid progress made by Pakistan set off alarm bells in India. And neutral international observers reviewed these programmes. Comprehensive reports applauding them were written by the World Bank, British Council, USAID as well as international experts.

Unfortunately, these programmes have been severely disrupted in the last decade by cuts in funding. In the last year of the PML-N government, the development budget of all universities of Pakistan was slashed by more than 60 percent. The operational budget has been slashed by the present government by about 10 percent as compared to last year, whereas salaries have been increased by about 10 percent. Inflation is also about 10 percent and there has been a devaluation of the rupee by about 40 percent (directly increasing the costs of imported equipment and consumables used). Additionally the service charges (electricity, gas) have increased by about 30 percent.

Universities are in a desperate situation and all the good done previously is now being undone. To cope with this alarming situation, university operational budgets need to be at least doubled immediately. The present HEC chairman, Dr Tariq Banuri, has been rightly pointing to the desperate situation of our universities, and he needs to be fully supported if our universities are to continue on the path to progress established by his predecessors.

It needs to be realized that higher education is directly linked to national security as it is this sector that supplies the high quality engineers, doctors, scientists and administrators needed for national development. The best way to destroy a country is to destroy its education.

The present government has taken important steps in the right direction by laying emphasis on developing a knowledge economy. However, this cannot be achieved without strengthening our education, particularly the higher education system. It is imperative for the Knowledge Economy Task Force to work together with the HEC as well as the ministries of education, science & technology, IT/telecom, agriculture and industry for maximum impact.

Without a well- planned and well-coordinated effort, we will not succeed. It is therefore important that the prime minister urgently call a meeting to consider the alarming deterioration of our universities due to lack of appropriate budgetary support and sufficient high quality faculty. The HEC must be fully supported and its status restored with the autonomy available to it in its earlier days.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).