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December 18, 2020

Tenure Track System reforms


December 18, 2020

The Tenure Track System (TTS) was introduced by Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) in 2002, as part of the strategy for reforming education quality. The objective was to attract better-qualified faculty members, and recognise and reward superior performance. The expectation was that over time the two systems would converge into a single, high-quality, competitive system of faculty recruitment, retention, promotion, and tenure.

The first version of the TTS statutes was developed in 2003, and adopted and implemented by a few universities in 2005. These statutes were adapted from practices in vogue in universities in advanced countries, especially the Faculty Handbook of The University of New Mexico, USA.

Over time, the statutes were amended to address remaining gaps and cater to local conditions. The final version was finally approved in the form of “Model Tenure Track Statutes, version 2.0”, in 2008. This version remains in place to date.

Prior to TTS, all faculty members in public sector universities were on the BPS (Basic Pay Scales) system. This system was viewed as being insufficiently attractive because of low salaries and lack of performance incentives. Promotions were strictly by seniority. Everyone had to wait in line, regardless of higher qualification or exceptional achievements in research or education. Experience in teaching or research had no precedence over administrative experience. PhD was not required for appointments as professors. Several had to retire as assistant professors because no senior positions were available.

The TTS introduced a more competitive system for recruitment, promotion, and tenure. It has led to some success, most importantly a change in mindset of academia towards research output and competitiveness. This mindset has affected not only those formally enrolled in the TTS system but also those in the BPS system as well as the students planning their future careers. While the total number of faculty members has increased tenfold since 2003, those on TTS grew from 95 in 2005-06 to 3,515 in 2019-20. Similarly, the number of PhDs awarded in the entire pre-TTS period (1947 to 2003) was exceeded in only 7 years (2003 to 2010). Finally, research output (i.e., number of published papers) has increased from 949 publications in 2003 to 20,292 in 2020.

However, the TTS system has now been in place for 15 years, and a number of practical challenges have emerged because of the admittedly uneven implementation. Major concerns voiced by TTS faculty members include the erosion over time of the incentives provided to TTS faculty (especially the assistant professors), the exclusion of non-salary benefits (pension, health insurance) from their packages, and the unjustified delays in approval of their promotion cases.

All these could have been anticipated during the programme design period. In addition, some faculty members would like a relaxation in standards, e.g., number of papers, acceptable journals for publishing the papers, and credit for non-academic experience. Since the standards are lower than international yardsticks, further lowering of standards would undermine the very ethos of the programme.

The last point is pertinent to the view of the critics of the TTS programme, who argue that notwithstanding the financial incentives, the research productivity of TTS faculty is not much higher than that of the BPS faculty. Second, they are critical of the quality of approved journals in which the research papers of the TTS faculty have been published. Third, they criticise the total exclusion of teaching quality from the assessment framework, because of which the quality of education has deteriorated over time.

In 2020, after a year-long process of consultation and analysis, a number of changes have been introduced in the TTS programme in order to address the above concerns and critiques. First, the TTS salaries have been readjusted to restore the superiority over BPS salaries. Second, the TTS salaries have now been indexed firmly to BPS with a 35 percent TTS bonus, so that the financial superiority will now become a permanent feature of the pay scales.

Third, the promotion criteria have been readjusted to give greater weight to publications in journals of higher quality. Fourth, a proper pension programme has been approved for TTS faculty on a contributory basis. Fifth, likewise a TTS health insurance scheme has been approved on a contributory basis. Sixth, the tenure process has been increased from 6 years to 9 years in accordance with international practice, albeit with a proportionately higher publication requirement. Seventh, TTS faculty have been allowed to occupy a limited number of "academic administration" positions without jeopardy to their promotion or tenure prospects.

It is also desirable to review options for including teaching quality explicitly as part of the promotion requirements. This may help, in part, in narrowing the gap between BPS and TTS faculty.

More generally, the Commission has been concerned over the lack of movement towards the hoped-for convergence between TTS and BPS programmes. After 15 years, the TTS covers less than one-fourth of the PhD faculty, and only about 7 percent of the total faculty.

Both systems are uncompetitive in different ways. On the one hand, every TTS faculty who publishes a minimum number of papers will get promoted, regardless of the existence of other candidates or departmental needs. On the other hand, while BPS faculty have to compete with each other (and with TTS faculty members) for scarce promotion slots, their minimum research requirements are far lower than those for TTS faculty. The result is a kind of race to the bottom as well as unnecessary conflict between the two. The time has come to address these differences and begin the process of convergence between the two systems.

The writer Dr Tariq Banuri, PhD, SI, is Chairman Higher Education Commission.