Recent criticism of the Higher
Education Commission does not inspire much confidence in the quality of debate and discussion on further higher education reform. This criticism is empty of any objectivity or alternative vision of HEC’s accomplishment and further upgrades required in its capacity and delivery mechanism.
Critique of national institutions and the political process must be informed by at least two universally acknowledged principles of evaluation: utilitarianism and constructiveness; not by the feudalist trait of hitting a person or entity when its down, which only weakens the collective spirit to do better.
Many of the punches are being thrown both by intellectual musclemen and uninformed laypersons that have no idea about what HEC has done, and what can be done to expand quality higher education. There is a need to be clear about what HEC promised, and what it has been able to deliver, in order to have an informed and constructive debate on higher education.
Education in general and higher education in particular has been a focus of national debate and periodic reforms for decades, because we all — including critics of HEC and the public universities — believe that investing time, resources and administrative and political capital in education is necessary for a stable and prosperous future.
The establishment of HEC with fresh vision and a new spirit to restructure higher education in Pakistan was a transformative event. Its predecessor, the moribund University Grants Commission, did not bother much with higher education reform. At best, it was a struggling commission with little to show in terms of any solid contributions to higher education except working as a middleman between public financing institutions and the universities. It had lost credibility and no university took the UGC seriously.
It was thus a good idea to build a new institution rather than work with the troubled legacy of the UGC. Among other things, the formation of HEC was significantly influenced by a fresh national debate on the quality of higher education and the reasons why the country has been left behind in this sector, even compared to many neighbouring developing countries.
This self-examination and dialogue among local and foreign academics and various reform committees under different governments painted the same picture repeatedly, with similar constraints but different remedies. Four sets of issues have dominated higher education reform: resources for public universities; quality and motivation of teachers; research funding and output; and the governance of universities.
Has HEC made any difference in these areas? First and foremost, HEC has brought higher education to the national consciousness and to the attention of major stakeholders in government, civil society, the media and anyone interested in raising the standard of education. HEC and its leadership did a remarkable job in making them all realise that we will continue to fail in achieving objectives of progress, change and development if we do not put higher education at the centre of national reforms.
The missionary zeal with which HEC pursued the matter has paid off in more than one respect. In all fairness, no other government in our history has devoted as many resources to higher education as did the last regime. In every field of academic activity, from raising infrastructure to faculty development, every public university has benefited greatly from the increased allocation of funds. As investment in higher education has a long gestation period and requires uninterrupted flow of funds, no amount is enough. But no one can dispute that what HEC has provided to the public universities during the last few years is phenomenal.
Buildings and infrastructure are fixed and permanent institutional costs, and once made would benefit coming generations of students and academics. The tens of billions of rupees spent on these are therefore a capital investment that will serve us for decades. While this is the hardware of academia, the ‘software’, the teachers, are perhaps more important than anything else.
The quality of instruction in the classroom depends on the training, research output and motivation of teachers. The only way that could be addressed was to send young men and women for higher education abroad and also provide incentives to enrol in PhD programmes in national universities. HEC has awarded thousands of scholarships through a merit-based competitive system in internationally recognised universities. Given how anaemic our public and private universities are in terms of trained faculty, this is a great investment in future teachers.
But that is not enough. While we must send our youth to be trained in reputed foreign universities, as do all progressive countries (consider the number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean students in American universities), we also need to build up the credibility and standards of our public universities. There are thousands of PhD students enrolled in public universities at a scale and enthusiasm never seen before. One may question the quality of our indigenous PhDs or the rigour of the programmes, but this is not an excuse to not modernise and expand these programmes.
Two further HEC initiatives that have revolutionised higher education in Pakistan deserve merit: the tenure track system and the higher visibility of Pakistani research in academic journals. Tenure track is a futuristic system, and it is not about deadwood trying to secure tenure track positions. This is why there is a small number of teachers who can qualify because of the requirement of publishing quality work in recognised journals. There must be more rigorous evaluation of those who can be placed on tenure track.
Higher salaries for university teachers under this system have sent a positive message to talented young Pakistanis about teaching and research as top career choices. Today, more teachers have research funding, more teachers attend international conferences and hundreds of them with indigenous PhDs have been sent on post-doctoral fellowships to gain experience and a better understanding of their disciplines.
One may accuse HEC of idealism and high ambitions, but these are virtues that drive radical reforms. Let us apply utilitarian principles, and reconstruct and refine HEC programmes instead of pulling everything down.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily Times, 28/10/2008