MY last article on the Higher Education Commission was published in Dawn on Jan 4, 2004. Since then I have not written on the HEC because I admired the spirit in which Dr Attaur Rahman was reforming the universities of Pakistan. Moreover, as a beneficiary of some of these reforms, I did not feel it appropriate to praise Dr Attaur Rahman’s contribution to academia. However, now that he is not in office I think the time has come when I should give my honest opinion about the HEC’s achievements under him.
This is all the more necessary considering that there has been a spate of criticism against the HEC in general and Dr Attaur Rahman in particular in the last few weeks. I am not talking about such balanced articles as Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s (Dawn Oct 21, 2008) but about letters in newspapers and statements by Dr Qadeer Khan among others.
In Dr Hoodbhoy’s case we all know that he has always had the moral courage to voice his opinion according to the dictates of his conscience. I am not technically qualified to give any judgment on most of his criticism — barring a minor factual error which I will mention later — but I do know that he has both integrity and sincerity, so, even if some of his facts were wrong, his motive for criticism is above board. Moreover, his criticism of HEC first came to light when Dr Attaur Rahman was in power. The criticism of the recent critics comes at a time when he is no longer in office. That is my objection to it — it is a case of bashing someone who has gone down.
First, the HEC should not be identified with one personality. The HEC has a large bureaucracy which takes decisions as all such bodies do. They appoint committees and the decisions are implemented by people who bring their own ideas into the picture. As such, there were many policies which were conceived in the spirit of reform but got bogged down later.
Let me point to one such policy — that of approving PhD supervisors by the HEC and then paying them for each student they supervise. The idea was to prevent unqualified people from supervising doctorates and to provide incentives for research. In reality academics were subjected to the ignominy of chasing HEC officials to get their names approved. Later, some supervisors took large numbers of students whom they could not adequately supervise.
The end result is that the prestige of university professors is lowered and, what is worse, we produce too many substandard PhDs. I pointed this out often and Dr Attaur Rahman agreed with me. However, once a payment is made it is difficult to withdraw it. As a mark of my own disagreement with this scheme I chose to resign from the position of an ‘approved supervisor’ in early 2007.
Initially I did not approve of hiring foreign academics at high salaries at all. Later I was convinced that in some fields they were required. I voiced this criticism in front of Dr Attaur Rahman and he convinced me of the soundness of the idea to reverse the brain drain by bringing back competent expatriate academics and others who had done good work. I am sure the process is not as perfect it should be; at the very least the selection process could be streamlined.
As Dr Hoodbhoy has pointed out the mistakes of the HEC, let me dwell more upon the good that it has done. First, in my opinion, is the provision of the digital library. Now we have a huge number of research articles and e-books at our fingertips. Back in 1985 when I was writing my first book, I remember importing articles at the cost of Rs12 per page at my own expense. Now, in 2008, I have imported eight research articles and an e-book through the HEC completely free of cost.
Another good idea of the HEC is to give scholarships to young people to go abroad for their doctoral studies. Even if half of the students sent abroad come back and join our universities, we will have better faculties than we do at present.
I remember having campaigned — much like Don Quixote — in the press for raising the salaries of academics and indexing them to research output for about twenty years but the first person who ever did anything to bring the universities out of the ghetto was Dr Attaur Rahman. Thanks to him all members of faculties are at least one grade higher in salary than college lecturers and junior bureaucrats.
Moreover, the Tenure Track System (TTS) salaries compete with the private sector so we are no longer in danger of losing our best academics to the private sector. TTS salaries range between Rs80,000 to Rs312,000 per month (not Rs350,000 as Dr Hoodbhoy claimed). The highest salary tenured professors at Quaid-i-Azam University are drawing at the moment is Rs215,000 and it takes them years to reach the ceiling. I know several people who would have gone to the private sector if it hadn’t been for such salaries. All these are achievements which should be praised.
Probably the biggest fault of the HEC is that it curbed the autonomy of the universities by using the stick-and-carrot method. However, the fact is that some of the universities used this autonomy to protect plagiarists and give high salaries without indexing performance with emoluments. Courses with high-sounding names were offered but the people who taught them could not even pronounce their names. As there is no external evaluation and students get inflated grades we are producing ignoramuses in the name of autonomy.
Personally I feel that autonomy is the right of the best research universities but not a mere college or degree-manufacturing factory which arrogates to itself the title of a university. So, where the HEC went wrong was that it gave the title of ‘university’ to far too many institutions. To what extent Dr Attaur Rahman is personally responsible for this proliferation of universities is not known to me.
Dr Attaur Rahman’s most striking trait was his unfailing courtesy. I also found him receptive to criticism, which he accepted with grace. Thus he remained unfailingly courteous and affable towards Dr Hoodbhoy (whose talent and sincerity he admired) at least on the occasions I observed personally. Dr Attaur Rahman’s contribution to higher education in Pakistan will always be remembered with respect.