What went wrong?

April 24, 2022

New book examines key issues facing higher education in country

What went wrong?

What is wrong with university education in Pakistan? Why are our universities not better placed in international rankings? Why is higher education in a self-destructive mode? Why can’t we produce top-quality researchers? Why are we not winning Nobel prizes? Can our universities be reformed? Can we have a research and debate culture in Pakistan? Can we have our indigenous research ideas? Can we have our own schools of thought? For an answer, you can read a book by Dr Nadeem Ul Haque, the vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad.

The University Research System in Pakistan materialised with support from the British Council and Knowledge Platform and with the endorsement of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC). Mahboob Mahmood; Shahbano Abbas, Ali Lodhi, Dr Maryam Rab and Catherine Sinclair Jones have jointly authored the book with Dr Haque.

The book explores various facets of the university research system in Pakistan and the related dynamics. It educates the reader on many levels. The text, at first, provides an overall picture of the state of university education in the country. Next, it identifies key issues. A comparative analysis with global best practices follows. Finally, there are proposals for reform.

The findings of the book do not read like a charge sheet against the HEC. In fact, it acknowledges that the commission did a pretty good job initially of putting the higher education on the right track. With the passage of time, it says, the HEC lost its direction and poor policy approaches and instruments put it on a path of constant decline.

The authors state that the HEC’s inclination toward natural sciences has turned the social sciences into a wallflower of academia in Pakistan.

The HEC policies did achieve a few positives including starting a research practice. However, such practice cannot bring the desired change if it doesn’t culminate in a comprehensive research culture of ideas and academic networking. It also requires a considerable financial cushion that the HEC failed to provide.

The lack of mentoring has been another hindrance. Nearly 39,000 junior faculty members are currently led by only 6,300 professors and associate professors - representing a junior-to-senior faculty ratio of over 7:1. Likewise, student to faculty ratio is 30:1. This restricts the probability of effective knowledge transfer through discourse. As a result, the quality of research gets compromised and the focus on quantity leads to hollow progress that has inherent drawbacks.

The authors also highlight the issue of a compartmentalised approach towards research. Useful research, they point out, is teamwork, not a solo performance. The positive spillover of knowledge sharing and the ripple effect it creates in the research arena are important. A diversity of perspectives, expertise and standpoints enriches the culture of debate and discussion, leading to progress throughout the society. With a few exceptions, the book says, such a culture is not encouraged in the academic institutes of Pakistan.

Most universities in Pakistan also have a dire funding problem. Where funds are available, they are usually funnelled into hard stuff – infrastructure. Petty corruption and rent-seeking also add to the burden. So, the researchers get no more than peanuts, if at all.

The publication also highlights what it calls a misguided and uncalled for emphasis on the number of publications rather than their quality. It blames the HEC for devising metrics and mechanisms that do not much care about quality. This raises serious questions about the HEC’s role as a regulator. It also questions the policy of faculty promotions based on the number of publications without gauging their quality. The objective here is not to undermine the significance of the frequency of publication, but to insist that this should not come at the cost of quality. The fact that in trying to promote research the HEC is actually doing harm, raises questions with regard to its leadership.

Besides offering ample evidence with regard to what is wrong with the higher education system, the book takes readers on a remarkable visual journey with charts and graphs. This makes for easier comprehension. This is complemented by key informant interviews and expert opinions from leading figures in the education sector. Around 200 were engaged in either interviews or focused group discussions (FGD). Around 28 percent of them were professors, 17 percent associate professors, 19 percent assistant professors, 11 percent lecturers and 25 percent others. Additionally, 14 academic and research institutions were also a part of this study.

The writers are of the view that in both developed and emerging economies, innovation has played and continues to play a critical role in development. In these countries, the government, the private sector and universities have collaborated to advance research and innovation to mitigate national as well as international challenges and to provide inputs for policy formulation. These nations consider research a national asset. The situation in Pakistan is quite different.

The last chapter of the book makes recommendations, primarily in four areas; a) implementing institutional changes, b) research funding reform, c) reform of the research measurement system and d) nurturing a purpose- and quality-driven research culture. Specific recommendations under these four broad areas include: form research councils, create multiple tiers of universities, reform faculty and human resource promotion, expand the research funding pie, implement a research excellence framework, fund thematic research, particularly in the social sciences and reform the quality measurement system.

The study covers almost everything about university education in Pakistan. However, it does not address the students as a major stakeholder. It also does not deal with extra-curricular activities that can be a significant determinant of students’ performance.

The author is a research economist at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad.

What went wrong?