Saturday May 28, 2022

Highs and lows of education

November 13, 2019

There was a major transformation of the landscape of our universities under the Higher Education Commission, in the earlier years of its existence. Not a single university could achieve respectable international ranking during the first 55 years of the existence of Pakistan from 1947 to 2002.

However within a short period of six years after the establishment of the HEC in 2002, several Pakistani Universities gained top rankings among the leading 300, 400 and 500 of the world by the year 2008 (Times Higher Education rankings). In August 2016 Thomson Reuters compared the high quality and highly cited publications from Pakistan with those of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.

The report concluded: “Pakistan has emerged as the country with the highest percentage of Highly Cited Papers compared with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).” These policies were also applauded in neutral external reviews carried out by the World Bank, British Council and USAID, as well as by independent foreign experts.

The emphasis on quality rather than numbers laid by the HEC in this early period, is reflected in the fact that our international research publications in the world’s high-quality journals soared. There were only about 800 publications in reputable international journals annually in the year 2003 but the emphasis on high quality research led to their dramatic increase – to about 8,000 research publications by the year 2008, and to about 19,000 by the year 2019. Remarkably, we overtook India in terms of international publications in high quality journals on a per capita basis in 2017, rising from 44 publications per 10 million population (about 400 percent behind India) in the year 2000 to 916 publications per 10 million population (about 20 percent ahead of India) by the year 2018.

The remarkable transformation that occurred between 2003 and 2008 was described as “a golden period” for higher education in Pakistan by the Chairman of United Nations Commission on Science Technology and Development, Prof Michael Rode of Austria. He visited Pakistan several times and wrote in 2008: "Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years”.

I was the founding chairman of the HEC and the three chairpersons who followed me – Begum Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Dr Javaid Laghari and Dr Mukhtar Ahmed – continued my policies. Dr Akram Sheikh and Dr Sohail Naqvi, the first two executive directors, played a key role in the transformation of the HEC in its earlier years.

A major setback occurred in May 2008 when the government abandoned the visionary projects for the establishment of a number of world-class universities of engineering and technology in collaboration with consortia of leading universities of Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Korea and China. The next attack on the higher education sector occurred in September 2008 when the PPP government decided not to release funds for thousands of students studying on HEC scholarships in foreign countries, forcing them to go begging on the streets of Paris, Berlin, London and other cities of the world. This precipitated my resignation in protest.

Under the Foreign Faculty Hiring Program (FFHP) initiated by the HEC, 1,761 foreign scientists applied for appointment of which 317 actually joined 41 universities during 2003-2011 after careful screening, as only the best were selected. Their contribution, with a few exceptions, was tremendous with 568 students enrolled for MS, 297 students for MPhil and 355 students for PhD. They published an astonishing 2,605 research papers in top ranking international journals under this very successful initiative. The Abdus Salam School of Mathematical Sciences was one of the 41 institutions that benefited.

The excellent performance of the HEC in the past has been negated by some unnecessarily. The average salary paid to foreign professors over the 10-year period was about Rs7 lakh a month (and not $150,000 to $300,000 as claimed by some critics of the HEC). It does not bode well for anyone to criticize the performance of hundreds of top professors from the US and Europe who came to Pakistan to serve this nation.

The earlier successes of the HEC have been criticised recently, so that the policies can be reversed. This would not be in the best interests of the country. Many key programmes of HEC have been cut down, leading to frustration among researchers in universities, who are leaving Pakistan for better opportunities abroad. It would be best to make sure that policies are not reversed for no reason.

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