May 232008

Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

During the last sixty years, the number of PhDs in Pakistan has risen from approximately 50 to 2000. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan claims that this number will rise to 20,000 by 2015. In order to produce the additional 18,000 PhDs, HEC has launched various local and foreign initiatives.

If this PhD factory cranks out the new PhDs, it will definitely break all world records, but will it make any difference to the nature of scientific research in Pakistan? Will there be any use of these new PhDs? What will Pakistan be like in 2015 with all these PhDs? Where will they work?

These questions are seldom asked in Pakistan. Not many are interested in examining deeper issues related to science and higher education. Appearances substitute for substance. In the rest of the world, a PhD degree merely indicates that the holder has gone through a certain amount of training in a chosen field of research. This research, however, takes place in a wider cultural, economic, and political context. In France, for instance, the holder of a PhD degree in a specific branch of chemistry is likely to be absorbed into an industry or research sector related to that field because his or her training has been specifically geared to the needs of that industry or field of research. In fact, the very process of production of PhDs is thoroughly linked to the overall scientific and industrial sectors of the Western countries. Not so in Pakistan.

The new PhD cranking mechanism set up by HEC has no home-grown components; it has nothing to link this misadventure with the actual needs of the country. Such components of research-related industry do not even exist. One can argue that scientific research need not be utilitarian, it can be basic or “pure” research, providing knowledge about the physical cosmos. If one were to accept this doctrine, there is still the hard fact that for a country like Pakistan research for the sake of research is an ill-afforded luxury. A country where even the most basic infrastructure is absent can hardly produce anything worth value in basic science.

As for utility-driven research, Pakistan has no industry which requires such research. Almost all of Pakistan’s industry is operating on a turn-key basis, requiring technicians, not PhDs. Its defence sector does have a genuine need for research, but that kind of research does not need 20,000 PhDs. Even most of the defence-related research requires able technologists, not scientists, although the difference is seldom understood in Pakistan.

The emphatic speeches calling for scientific research turn into a soup with too many arbitrary components. To spice these speeches, the speakers often add national pride to their recipe. In almost all public forums, the lament is always about Pakistan not producing enough science. (When the occasion demands, “Pakistan” is replaced with “Muslim world.”) What does it mean to say that Pakistan does not produce enough science? Those who repeat this slogan-like statement ad nauseam mean that Pakistanis do not publish enough papers in international scientific journals. They assume that science is some kind of international race in which each country is supposed to take part, and since Pakistan is far behind in the race, it is a matter of national shame. The fact is that there is no such race; every country contributing to the global scientific knowledge is doing so through an integrated system in which its industry, education and economy are all inter-linked to each other, and, whatever scientific knowledge is produced, it is produced through this integrated system which benefits its economy. In Pakistan, this linkage has never existed.

Under the maverick leadership of the HEC Chairman, Pakistan is supposed to bypass all these necessary links and achieve a scientific renaissance through an ad hoc process in which a self-styled visionary makes all the decisions about what should be done. The result is utter disaster and colossal waste. For example, the HEC Chairman announced on June 25, 2005, that HEC has sanctioned 180 million rupees ($3 million) for the establishment of a 5 MeV tandem Van de Graaf accelerator to be housed at the National Centre for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University. The announcement came amid all the fanfare with which such announcements are made. But the few journalists listening to the announcement had no idea that such Van de Graaf machines are now museum pieces, if not basic junk. Those who sat on the left and right of the HEC Chairman with broad smiles either had no knowledge or no moral courage, or neither, to say a word about why and how this decision was made. Those who pointed out the folly behind buying such junk were quickly blacklisted.

HEC decides that Pakistan needs more universities. A programme is launched to set up universities all over the country, even in places where there are not even enough schools. But the Chairman wants to show progress, activity. The solution is easy: take down the boards of existing colleges, repaint them as such-and-such university, and you have universities all over the country. Then initiate a publicity orgy and claim that HEC has increased the number of universities in the country from 23 to 47. The number game may satisfy the egos of some, but to an objective observer, the future of science and higher education in Pakistan looks bleak because there is no backbone to this whole effort.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:

Courtesy: The News, 23/5/2008

 Posted by at 10:56 am

  One Response to “Pakistan: HEC’s number game”

  1. What about all poor rated PhDs in india. What they doing.Pakistan is a developng country and it needs lots of qualified people in the form of PhDs.And plaease nerver discourage muslims. we have the habit of only giving the negative comments just like our dirty minded enemies.

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