Monday March 04, 2024

HEC woes

April 02, 2021

The higher education sector has been under the spotlight recently because of the removal of Dr Tariq Banuri. It is stated by some that he was focusing on the quality of education. The truth is the exact opposite.

The three key elements to guarantee quality are faculty, curriculum and examinations. The most important of these is high-quality faculty. The ability of well qualified faculty members to deliver excellent well-prepared lectures that excite young minds and create the urge to learn more is critically important. To do this we need to train our brightest young men and women in top institutions abroad in sufficient numbers.

I have been criticised for sending too many students for PhD studies abroad when I was chairman HEC. That is nonsense. Numbers do matter if you really want good quality education across all our universities. With some 15 million students receiving higher education, and with a desired ratio of one PhD level faculty member for every 20 students, we need at least 75,000 high quality PhD level faculty in our universities. In reality, we have only about 15,000 PhD level faculty members, and many of them are very weak. So, the answer lies in replicating the faculty development programme that we started in 2002 – sending thousands of our brightest to leading universities of the world.

The world’s largest Fulbright programme was initiated back in 2005 and a large number of students sent to Ivy League universities in the US. Some 11,000 scholarships were awarded for PhD and postdoctoral training abroad. But sending them abroad was not enough. We also ensured that they came back and were absorbed as faculty members in our universities. This was done by providing additional funding to universities to absorb them. Moreover, they could apply for $100,000 grants each one year prior to their return.

The emphasis by Dr Tariq Banuri has been a sharp drop in faculty numbers with mushroom expansion of our universities – about 50 new universities added in three years without availability of faculty or additional funds.

The hard facts are that the HEC has had more than 8,000 scholarship slots (local plus international) worth about 50 billion rupees which have been lying unutilized while our universities have suffered because of lack of qualified faculty. Only about 500 scholarships have been awarded in the last three years against the 8000 positions available. The majority of students sent abroad during the last three years have been to weak universities in Hungary; is that the way to improve quality? The training of 8,000 students in top universities and their absorption in our universities could have made a huge difference to the quality of education and research but it was deliberately sabotaged.

Here are some concrete examples. The Rs22 billion ‘2000 Overseas PhD Scholarships’ scheme Phase III was approved in early 2018. Scholars were to be sent for PhD level training to top 200 universities of the world. Only 40 scholarships could be awarded and the HEC remained idle. Another important initiative launched with much fanfare was the US-Pakistan Knowledge Corridor under which Rs25 billion were available. The programme was approved in 2017 and 1500 Pakistani scholars were to be sent to top ranked universities in the US. Only about 100 scholarships could be awarded, another huge failure of the HEC.

The ‘Faculty Development Program-PhD Studies’ was approved at a cost of Rs7 billion to award 2000 scholarships for PhD Studies in Pakistan and abroad. Only 120 scholarships were awarded in the last three years. The ‘Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme’ worth Rs3 billion approved in 2017 for training 1000 scholars had the same fate – only about 40 persons could benefit from this programme so far and money for 960 slots remained unutilized.

To have about Rs50 billion available but blocked under several schemes for training our brightest youth represents criminal negligence on the part of the HEC. Similarly, there were about a thousand post-doctoral fellowships approved through PSDP funding, but only 20 faculty members could avail this opportunity.

One of the most important needs of researchers is to have access to sophisticated scientific instruments. The system of ‘Open Access Instrumentation’ gives free nation-wide access to sophisticated instrumentation and removes the need of huge investments in sophisticated instrumentation and duplication of resources. The program was stopped by Dr Banuri resulting in a huge damage to the research output of our universities.

The Interim Placement of Fresh PhDs (IFPF) Program was initiated by the HEC in 2009, both to provide employment to fresh PhDs, and support universities in attracting qualified faculty. The IPFP provided all Pakistani fresh PhD graduates an opportunity to be placed as assistant professors on a tenure track system for a period of one year. The program was running very successfully; however, it was put on hold in 2019.

In order to destroy research centers, a ridiculous scheme was created to slash their budgets by 90 percent and then to award a small amount of money based on productivity. The Ministry of Education had to intervene to stop this disastrous attempt. This is only a small part of the huge mess created as dozens of other important HEC programmes were stopped.

The best way to destroy a country is to destroy its education. The higher education sector has received an almost death blow in the last three years of mismanagement and pure talk without action by the HEC. It is now time to rebuild.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.