How greed ruins academia in Pakistan

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By Pervez Hoodbhoy


PAKISTAN’S university system is breaking down, perhaps irreparably so. Thanks to the Higher Education Commission’s grand plans for a massive change, a tidal wave of money hit our public universities during the Musharraf years.

Although difficult financial times finally stemmed the flood, this enormous cash infusion served to amplify problems rather than improve teaching and research quality.

Naked greed is now destroying the moral fibre of academia. Professors across the country are clamouring to lift even minimal requirements that could assure quality education. This is happening in two critical ways. First, to benefit from three-fold increases in salaries for tenure-track positions, professors are speedily removing all barriers for their promotions. Second, they want to be able to take on more PhD students, whether these students have the requisite academic capacity or not. Having more students translates into proportionately more money in each professor’s pocket.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Quaid-i-Azam University, said to be Pakistan’s flagship public university. Barely two miles from the presidency and the prime minister’s secretariat, it was once an island of excellence in a shallow sea of mediocrity. Most other universities started lower, and their decay has gone further and faster than at QAU. Some are recognisable as universities in name only.

QAU’s departments of physics and economics were especially well known 35 years ago, which is when I joined the university. The faculty was small and not many PhD degrees were awarded in those days. Money was scarce, but standards were fairly good and approximated those at a reasonable US university. But as time passed, less care was taken in appointing new faculty members. Politics began to dominate over merit and quality slipped. That slow slippage is now turning into rapid collapse.

Last month, at a formal meeting, QAU professors voted to make life easy for themselves. The Academic Council, the key decision-making body of the university, decided that henceforth no applicant for a university teaching position, whether at the associate professor or professor level, could be required to give an open seminar or lecture as a part of the selection process. Open lectures were deemed by the council as illegal, unjust and a ploy for victimising teachers.

This is mind-boggling. Public presentations allow an applicant’s subject competence and ability to communicate to be assessed by the academic community. (For the record, this writer insisted that requiring open lectures from candidates is standard practice in every decent university in the world. This prompted angry demands for his dismissal as chairman of his department!)A second major decision also dealt a stunning blow to the future of QAU. The council voted 25-12 that QAU’s PhD candidates did not have to conform to international standards. It decided to overturn its earlier acceptance of the HEC’s requirement that the international GRE subject tests must be passed by a candidate prior to awarding a PhD degree. Some professors gleefully noted that the HEC had been mortally weakened by the removal of its chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, and argued that good advantage needed to be taken of this happy fact. Those who wanted international testing were labelled agents of foreign powers.

This horrible mess comes from a misguided HEC policy that emphasised numbers over all else. The number of PhD students registered at various universities, including QAU, was purposely made to explode. But many PhD students, perhaps because of their poor schooling, are not good enough as PhD material. Under pressure to maintain a minimal standard for PhD students, the HEC finally decreed a pass-mark of 40 percentile in the international GRE subject test.

The GRE test is fairly elementary and pitched only at the Bachelor’s level (i.e. 16 years of education). It has, however, proved to be too difficult for many Pakistani PhD students even at the end of their PhD studies. In spite of several tries, most cannot meet the 40 percentile pass mark, an extremely low level. But it is common for Indian, Chinese and Iranian students to score twice as much at the beginning of their studies.

Why the urgency for eliminating international testing? This is easily understood. Each professor gets paid a few lakh rupees per PhD produced, with a current maximum of 10 students per supervisor at QAU. Lifting the GRE requirement removes a threat to the additional income of their supervisors. To keep up appearances, from now on a token internal test will be used instead. It is hard to imagine that any student will be allowed to fail. While the decision of the professors to do away with international testing has been greeted with relief by many enrolled PhD students at QAU, among better students there is a sense of foreboding of an endless downward slide.

Many students recognise that international tests are difficult but they also know it is a real measure of what they have learned. Although students in all other departments have reportedly failed, the fact is that even average students in the physics department have done reasonably well. Over the last year, a total of nine students in the physics department have cleared the 40 percentile requirement. Three students, who the department subsequently honoured, secured over 75 percentile. All students, whether they do well or otherwise, say they learned a great deal of the subject matter in preparing for this challenge and felt more educated. The problem is their teachers seem to think the test is impossibly difficult, or perhaps they are insufficiently equipped to help their students prepare for it.

The involvement of teachers in running QAU’s non-teaching affairs is another bad sign. A weak university administration appears unwilling or unable to resist the growing power of professors who seek personal profit at the expense of public good. There is even resort to violence — some professors had physically kicked the former registrar, the second-most senior university administrator, out of his office. This action drew no comment from the head of the university.

To be fair, the threat to QAU is not just from inside. The campus contains some of the prime undeveloped public land in the capital. This land is being encroached upon by surrounding villagers as well as political influentials. University administrators, supposedly on behalf of the public interest, plan to sell off bits and pieces of university property to commercial interests. The sale of a piece of campus land to make a gas station on Murree Road is currently under negotiation. But the university’s land was given to it for educational purposes. It rightfully belongs to future generations of Pakistanis.

The writer is chairman and professor at the department of physics, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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