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April 7, 2021

Everyone’s an expert


April 7, 2021

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Back in the 90s, a young person from a middle-class family lacking funds but aspiring to go to grad-school in the West had very few options. There was little in the way of public awareness of the prerequisites for securing admission and funding. The government funded options available were the dozens of ‘S&T Scholarships’ of the Ministry of Science and Technology, but competition for them was fierce.

After the upgradation of the UGC to the HEC in 2001, administration of these and many new scholarship programmes was transferred to the HEC. Funding for higher education began to grow and so did the number and size of HEC programmes.

Given the humble beginnings of the HEC and the newness of the challenge, the quantity-over-quality approach taken by its first chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, in those early days was understandable. I personally know a good number of smart people from our leading universities who had graduated recently and saw the fog lift from the road map to good grad-schools in the West. There was pent up demand among graduates of Pakistan’s top universities who genuinely wished to attend good grad schools. If these scholars could be retained beyond their mandatory five-year commitment period after their return, this would be a long-term investment in the higher education sector that could pay dividends for the next 30-35 years.

But it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In the following years, many more and larger programs were added to the HEC’s portfolio, and some of them began to make less and less sense. Foremost among them for me was the scholarship program for 1,000 local PhD students per annum.

The quantity-over-quality approach hit its limit fairly early. The flood of scholarships quickly filled the demand from adequately prepared and capable candidates. Beyond that, it attracted many underprepared candidates. Where the admissions criteria of foreign universities served as an independent quality check and barrier to entry for weak applicants, there was almost no effective quality control check on the thousands of applicants aspiring to earn their doctorates from local universities, some of which had never produced few to zero PhDs since their inception.

At one point, HEC officials realized that the cost of funding a doctoral student in China was only one-third of that at Western universities. This realization and the preference for quantity over quality manifested itself in the rebalancing of scholarships. The number of scholarships to Western universities was greatly reduced and restricted, while the number of less costly scholarships to China was expanded and the lion’s share of scholarships went to funding local students.

To understand what this approach has wrought 20 years later, visit any of the fora of university faculty members. You will be hard-pressed to find posts written in comprehensible and grammatically correct English. Bear in mind that all these people hold PhDs, and have dozens of journal and conference papers to their names each. This gunk is now part of the higher education system and will take decades to flush out.

Dr Tariq Banuri’s approach was to re-prioritize quality and account for spending on programmes, which is not sitting well with many invested in the status quo. Several commentators have broken down his efforts into great detail. As we are witnessing the government attempt to push him out of office before the end of his appointed tenure, familiar names from the HEC’s quantity-focused past are back in op-ed pages reminiscing about past tenures. All of them seem unified in their desire to go back to the earlier approach that measures achievements by the same old input-heavy metrics (number of research grants awarded, number of scholarships awarded, number of publications, number of PhD students graduated, etc) that two decades of experience have shown us to be imperfect and are easily gamed by those determined to do so. When the amount of money spent is itself considered a measure of achievement, success comes easy.

There is an unwillingness to close the loop between resources applied as input, assessing the achieved outputs and amending one’s approach. If this sounds familiar that is because we see the same problematic approach in the public-school sector, where departments cannot be moved to look beyond input-heavy programmes (number of schools built / upgraded, number of teachers hired / trained) to boast of achievements, while neglecting their feeble effect on output indicators that matter (enrollment rate, drop-out rate, learning indicators).

The fig leaf used to justify the ousting of outgoing HEC chairman, Dr Tariq Banuri, is that he hired a few additional consultants. On March 31, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy conducted an interview with Dr Banuri which is readily available on YouTube. In it he gives his version of events that led up to the situation today. He narrates how three institutes have been receiving around Rs1 billion per annum, one-third of the HEC’s funds to research institutes, with the remaining two-thirds going to all other research institutes in the country.

A simple review of research centers to account for these funds they had been receiving was first met by opposition, and then prompted the PM Office to issue a letter exempting these three institutes from any accountability. When the HEC would not budge, an ordinance was set into motion to engineer Dr Banuri’s ouster from the position of chairman.

These are serious yet easily verifiable charges that deserve serious investigation. Certainly, the allegations of non-performance while receiving Rs1 billion of public funds merit more attention than the appointment of a handful of more consultants than are approved, especially by a government that claims to be all about accountability and weeding out non-performers.

A recent oped pushed for the declaration of a national education emergency. When emergencies are declared that is usually accompanied by a suspension of oversight and accountability on spending. Two decades later, there seems to be little to no change in this approach that is all about spending, spending and spending.

The thing that has me most concerned about such thoughts on a national education emergency are the plethora of random programs and interventions they propose without any evidence for their efficacy. The ideas being publicly pitched are either already being done (eg: setting minimum learning standards), have proven ineffective (eg: using television for teaching), or lack evidence that they work (eg: paying bonuses to teachers that can earn an A-grade in their subject’s Cambridge A-level exam).

One oped has favoured a rollback of the devolution of education to provinces under the 18th Amendment; this is sure to garner strong opposition, at least from Sindh under this government. The argument for the rollback? Islamabad has a literacy rate of 98 percent, higher than that of Torghar district in the Hazara division with 23 percent. This is presented as evidence that the federal government is in a better position to provide education all over the country, as if there are no other differences between Islamabad and Torghar.

From the top down, education is being ‘advised’ by people lacking qualifications and expertise in education. Apparently, everyone and anyone who ever went to school and has an opinion is now considered an ‘education expert’.