Promoting research

July 16, 2023

New HEC rules for PhD students need re-evaluation

Promoting research


t seems that those having authority over university education in Pakistan are perpetually at work, inventing new tortures for those who embark upon the quest for a PhD degree. At the same time, they insist that those aspiring to teach in universities have this qualification. Had common sense prevailed, like it did for centuries in the Britain and South Asia, a PhD would not be a necessity. Also, a doctorate (DLitt, DD) could be conferred on a researcher following the examination of all published work. The student PhD was something Britain imported from Germany and the USA when too many students started going to universities in those countries while the British ones refused to go beyond the graduation.

Even in the 1980s when I was a student in Britain, some of the old professors did not have a PhD. They were, nevertheless, supervising doctoral students. They had, as they declared, a first from Oxford or Cambridge. On top of that, of course, they were major scholars much admired for their work.

In Pakistan, the insistence on PhD is a byproduct of our Higher Education Commission which cares more for quantity and paper qualifications than anything else. They made it impossible for young people to find jobs in academia unless they went for [sub-standard] PhDs and [sub-standard] journal articles. I do not have the heart to blame the young people who seek to ally — ingratiate, cajole, persuade — themselves with senior researchers just to borrow their names for joint publications. The student exploits the professor; in turn, the professor exploits the student. The former wants the name of a known person; the latter a publication without doing anything. Whole journals have been started for this purpose. Some, I have heard, take money to publish papers. Since one can have co-authors, a number of friends and hangers-on can be obliged.

Since the HEC only values research articles, very few people go on to publish books, chapters in books or encyclopedia articles. There is a policy for giving a book the credit equivalent of two papers (in X category) subject to submitting eight copies of the book. If one publishes with a foreign press, each copy costs at least around $100. I am sure most people will not find it attractive to waste that much money to get credit for f just two journal articles. In my own case, I did submit my book, Names, published by the Oxford University Press (Karachi, 2015). However, the required equivalence certificate has not been issued by the HEC. The irony is that the same book was given an HEC award for being the ‘best book of the year’ in 2015. Since then, I have resolved never to submit another book to the HEC for such an equivalence. But can younger people do that? No; they need these certificates controlled by the HEC for promotions and so on.

However, these are perennial issues we face. Here, I want to point out some specific issues in the public interest. Among other things, the HEC has decreed that the work of PhD scholars is not their exclusive property. The 2023 Graduate Education document says, inter alia: “PhD research work completed under supervision is a shared property of the supervisor and the supervisee. All publications resulting from such research shall reflect the authorship of both parties and shall be subject to mutual consent.”

Since the HEC only values research articles, very few people go on to publish books, chapters in books and encyclopedia articles. There is a policy for giving a book credit equivalent to two papers (in X category) subject to submitting eight copies of the book.

Shared work? I beg your pardon! It is the work only of the person who has written the thesis. It is not the supervisor’s work. It should on no account have two names on it. It should have the name of the student, alone. I thought this was a well-known ethical norm and everybody knew it but apparently the HEC does not.

I am aware how students desperate to get published themselves request supervisors to give their names. This is, understandably, a bad market condition created by this mania for publications. I can also understand that some unscrupulous supervisors force their students to put their names on each publication. This is much to be condemned and the supervisors, not the students, are to blame for it. However, to make a rule saying that it is ‘shared property’ and that publications from it ‘shall reflect the authorship of both parties’ is deliberate and unpardonable infringement of the basic condition for a doctorate i.e. it is one person’s, and only that person’s, original and significant contribution to human knowledge. In the 1980s, none of my colleagues who got their doctorates from British universities ever published with anyone else, let alone their supervisors - in the social sciences and the humanities at least. We did hear of such things happenings in the [natural] sciences but we did not think it was possible in our disciplines. To this day, I have never published anything with anyone else. So, all my work, like it or not, is mine. If there are any flaws, those are mine. And if somebody wants to praise it — as, indeed, the HEC has kindly done by giving me a lifetime recognition award — then the praise is mine.

The HEC rules force people to find crutches. They impose dependency, not allowing scholars to stand on their own feet. For instance, take this condition that PhD scholars will publish an article before submitting their theses. Why? Such a condition does not exist — or at least it did not — in the universities I have seen: Sheffield, Oxford, UT-Austin, UC-Berkeley, Heidelberg and Aarhus (Denmark). Why should it be necessary to publish an article before one has submitted one’s PhD thesis? In fact, I know of students (brilliant ones) who have finished their doctorates from Oxford University this very year (2023) who have not published any article at all. So, are the academic standards of Oxford lower than Pakistani universities where every PhD has to publish an article before submitting their dissertations?

It is because such policies exist that students go through the devious practice of asking their supervisors to lend their names to their papers. It is because of this that supervisors get credit for articles they have done no work upon. It is because of this that sub-standard journals flourish and make money. Indeed, the mother of all corruption - academic corruption, I mean - is the enforcement of absurd rules. The rules force one to find ways to beat the system. Except for the genuine researcher who also happens to be innocent, the scholars are seduced into chicanery and deceit of the worse kind.

The policy document about Graduate Education issued by the HEC needs to be revised. I hope some other voices are raised pointing out the wrong policies outlined in it and I hope universities do not accept it lying down. For the sake of young scholars and to make research a truth-seeking and honest endeavour, we must offer constructive criticism. If we do not, these policies will kill genuine research and eliminate integrity from Pakistani academia.

sThe author, currently a fellow of the Heidelberg University, is an occasional contributor.

Promoting research