Higher education crisis in Pakistan

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By Dr Tariq Rahman

 PAKISTAN inherited a colonial university system created by the British. The cardinal features of this system were that it was under-financed, bureaucratic, mediocre and teaching- (rather than research-) oriented.

The best graduates entered the colonial bureaucracy and the rest took up teaching. The colleges received the worst. The universities, though not much better, did have a couple of good scholars and scientists who were attracted to the job in spite of the system and not because of it.

In terms of figures, 2.6 per cent university-age students attended institutions of higher education in 2001. Only 23 per cent of the faculty had doctorates and not a single university was among the top 500 universities of the world. Then came the year 2002 when a quiet revolution occurred in the universities. First, the budget went up by 340 per cent in real terms from 2001 to 2006, bringing 39 per cent of the students into universities which expanded from 18 to 124 and more.

While this increase in numbers was at the cost of quality, certain other programmes of the Higher Education Commission — the body which had spearheaded these changes — were excellent. For instance, over 3,755 students were sent abroad to obtain their PhDs and over 20,000 journals and 45,000 e-books were made available through the digital library in Pakistani universities.

The salaries of academics were made so competitive that the best of them chose to stay in public universities. If these high salaries (under the Tenure Track System) had not been put in place, public universities would have lost good professors to the private sector.

But then came 2008 and, just as we were expecting to ‘take off’, the HEC’s own recurring grant was slashed by 23 per cent, and in early 2009, by another 20 per cent. Considering that inflation has gone up by 21.6 per cent and fuel prices by 66 per cent, universities would be forced to cut down on even essential expenses. The dream of sending PhD candidates every year to foreign countries will remain just that.

Moreover, who knows whether a good faculty will join the public universities considering that our TTS salaries are in jeopardy. In short, we were grounded before we took off.

Why I contend that we could have taken off is because our publications increased from 815 in 2002 to 2,495 in 2008. Admittedly, all these publications are not so good as to be cited but even the citations have grown in these few years. We have video-conferencing facilities in 42 universities and about 1,020 events have been arranged so far. Nor is our work irrelevant to national needs. Indeed, the research on gemstones (Peshawar), science (Quaid-i-Azam University), engineering and agriculture has commercial applications.

There is no doubt that some projects of the HEC were seriously flawed. I am not a scientist but I am told that some scientific equipment was either not required or useless. This mistake needs to be rectified in future but it does not mean that all projects should be frozen.

My personal critique has always been that the public sector universities need not have expanded to 67 from about 12 or so. Putting ‘university boards’ in colleges and in under-developed towns does not turn educational institutions into universities. It only bestows undeserved vice chancellorships on well-connected people and creates degree-giving factories.

The percentage of students enrolled in Egypt is 40, in Turkey 32, in India 12, and Bangladesh seven. Our own figure hovers around five per cent.

However, one can enroll students in university-colleges, teaching universities or just post-graduate colleges. The problem is that when all universities are theoretically equal then resources are distributed so thinly that no world-class university can be created. This was the HEC’s greatest blunder. It spread scarce resources too widely instead of creating just a couple of world-class universities to begin with.

Secondly, the HEC created an indigenous PhD programme in which supervisors and students were both paid. On the face of it, this appears to have been a good incentive but actually the 3,500 students in this programme are of unequal quality. The doctorates given to them, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are also not of standard quality.

If they join the faculty we will be saddled with mediocrity for a quarter of a century at least. Had the HEC spent all its funds only to send young people abroad it would have been better. The irony now is that the sending of students abroad for a PhD has been suspended while the indigenous PhD goes on.

Can something be done? Most certainly yes! Pakistan spent 2.44 per cent of its GDP in 2007-08 on education out of which the share of higher education was 15.6 per cent. This is not excessive as Iran spent 4.7 per cent, India 3.8 per cent, Maldives 7.5 per cent and even Nepal spent 3.4 per cent.

Actually, in real terms, we spend Rs21,063 per student per year in 2001-02 while now this figure has gone up to Rs22,059. If the government whittles down the expenditure on higher education by another 20 per cent the universities will stop dead in their tracks and the 293 development projects the HEC has on the cards will vanish into thin air.

Meanwhile, India is all set to create 12 central universities in addition to its existing 18 ones. This will cost Rs3,280 crores ($73m). India already has Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Their number too will be increased. There will be 30 world-class universities; eight new IITs and seven new IIMs. The salaries of academics will also be increased by 70 per cent which, however, will be less than our TTS scales.

I do not know enough about India to be able to say whether these huge increases will dilute the standards of good universities, IITs and IIMs. As it is, none of India’s 348 universities is in the top 100 universities of the world. If India is serious about creating some world-class universities it will have to concentrate resources on a few big cities and not spread them out too thin. Be that as it may, the lesson for us is that India is continuing with what we too started doing since 2002 i.e. paying academics better and improving its universities.

I believe we should go on doing what we began but focus only on a few universities. The HEC should create a few world-class universities with TTS salary academics promoted on the basis of excellent research. Every young entrant in these universities should be sent abroad for a PhD, and state-of-the-art laboratories and libraries should be created. These world-class universities should admit students only on merit after very stringent tests.

Other universities, university-colleges and colleges should cater for the increasing number of mediocre students who too need degrees and jobs. But for all this, the HEC needs money and recognition. So, while no institution is above criticism and correction, starving the HEC of funds just when the universities are beginning to take off would be a colossal folly.


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