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Improving Higher Education in Pakistan

By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Rumor has it that the World Bank is on its way back to Pakistan with a bagful of loans, together with plans for how we must spend the money. A major focus of the Bank’s efforts will be higher education reform. No one doubts the desperate need for reform of Pakistan’s education sector, or the need for assistance, especially since we have shown little capacity to fund or plan our education ourselves. But recent experience suggests the Bank’s help may be a poisoned chalice. If it is to be otherwise, the Bank will have to avoid local snake charmers and be more skeptical of what bureaucrats and ministers claim.

Said to be the world’s biggest research institution working on developmental issues, the Bank employs thousands of technical people at its Washington headquarters and abroad. Typically, a highly paid World Bank team of experts, trained in the use of sophisticated mathematical and statistical tools and report writing, is parachuted into a Third World country. They could be charged with fixing broken down systems of education, healthcare, agriculture, or electricity. But although its researchers and team leaders are often accomplished individuals, experience suggests they are not adequately equipped to understand the complexity of local issues. As important, the Bank depends on government agencies and cannot easily bite the hand that invites it in and provides access.

The Bank’s limitations are exposed by how it allowed itself to be systematically deceived in its mission to promote and support reform of higher education in Pakistan. For six years, Pakistanis heard endless stories of success about the revamping of their universities under the leadership of the Higher Education Commission and its celebrated chief, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman. With a record-smashing 12-fold increase in the HEC’s funding ordered by Gen. Musharraf’s government, new universities popped into existence almost every other month. Production of PhD’s and research papers shot up. It seemed obvious that things were improving. At least that’s what HEC and the World Bank said.

A 2006 World Bank report on the HEC’s performance, issued by a team led by Benoît Millot, reads like a paean to the HEC. Written in impeccable English, and embellished with impressive charts and diagrams, this 109-page report finds no fault, nor questions any assumption of the-then prevailing authorities, and proclaims that “HEC has placed quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector at the centre of its agenda”. No surprise then that the report was widely quoted by the HEC as evidence of its achievements and used to demand yet more money for HEC schemes. Everything dovetailed perfectly: the Bank wanted to lend and the HEC to spend.

But now as the bitter truth gradually seeps out, the HEC’s alleged accomplishments are fading away. Today, in spite of sporadic newspaper items planted by the HEC’s former chairman, the consequences of arbitrary one-man decision making, deliberately exaggerated or invented numbers, and plain sloppy thinking are becoming apparent.

The construction of university buildings has been frozen leaving them half-completed. Fantastically expensive research equipment litters the country, much of which is unused. It has been abandoned by even those who insisted on their import. Vice-chancellors are panicking over unpaid salaries for faculty and staff. Thousands of desperate Pakistani students sent overseas have received no scholarship money for months. Until they were cancelled a few weeks ago, many of HEC’s hugely expensive but shoddily planned projects – such as building nine new Pak-European universities – had been furiously sucking resources away from real needs.

Academic quality may be an even bigger casualty. Driven by huge cash incentives to mass-produce PhD degrees, university teachers have banded together across campuses to fight tooth and nail against every attempt to enforce genuine academic standards on Ph.D. graduates. Fearful of losing their bonuses, they oppose setting a reasonable pass mark for the Ph.D. exam, the internationally recognised GRE subject test. They know many of their students would fail, even though these students are now allowed to take the test even at the end of their studies. In China, India, and Iran, students take this exam as part of getting admission to a PhD programme overseas – and do immensely better.

Then there is research. The HEC claimed that, prior to the launch of its programs, annual research publication rates in universities were very low. It says, for example, that Quaid-e-Azam University published only 631 research papers between 1998-2003. But, after the HEC’s chairman started his cash reward-per-paper program, the number of research papers shot up to 1482 in the 2003-2008 period, a 235% improvement.

But, all serious academics know that what matters is not how many papers are written but how good these papers are. A standard measure of a paper is how many times other academics refer to it in their own papers. According to the International Science Citation Index, the total number of times the research papers published in the 1998-2003 period were cited by other researchers (excluding worthless self-citations) was 2817. But, in the 2003-2008 period the citation count was a mere 1258. The message this sends is loud and clear – producing more papers does not mean more useful knowledge is being produced.

The fact is that for years numbers were twisted around and no one noticed, including the World Bank. What’s worse is that the Bank did not even bother to check. Its trained and intelligent observers could have easily investigated several of the HEC’s claims without even stirring from their desks. All they would have needed is a good internet connection, and access to standard science citation indexes.

Rather than simply sign off on HEC claims that it had worked miracles, the World Bank could have undertaken its own study. It could, for instance, have looked for evidence of improvement in university teaching quality (rather than a mere increase in enrollment). To do this scientifically it would have needed to work out the parameters that define teaching quality and then gathered the relevant data. This might have involved establishing some reasonable metrics for gauging the quality of the faculty and student body, assessing the state of library and laboratory facilities, the content of university courses, the standard of examination papers, the presence (or lack thereof) of academic colloquia and seminars on campuses, the suitability of those appointed as vice-chancellors, the number of days in a year that the universities actually function, satisfaction of employers with university graduates, etc. But there is no sign that the World Bank bothered to do this groundwork. At least, having searched available databases, I could find none.

If the Bank is again going to try support higher education reform in Pakistan, it needs to be more serious. It must focus on quality and demand greater accountability.

What Pakistan needs from the Bank is help for improving the dilapidated infrastructure (buildings, libraries, laboratories) of ordinary colleges where the bulk of Pakistani students in higher education study, not more half-baked universities. Mega-sized projects for producing qualified junior faculty for universities and colleges are badly needed. The importance of quality teaching in colleges and universities must be emphasized, not meaningless publications and more junk Ph.D. degrees. Better institutional governance and ethics is the key. Encourage this and the rest will follow.

This article was first published in Dawn, 18 January 2009.

Riaz Haq's Note: While I respect Dr. Hoodbhoy immensely and value his opinions greatly, I do think that his criticism of Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman is overdone in Pakistan's context. In my humble opinion, it's not all doom and gloom in Pakistan. For the first time in the nation's history, Dr. Rahman succeeded in getting tremendous focus and major funding increases for higher education in Pakistan. Citations of Pakistani scientific publications are rising sharply. Over two dozen Pakistani scientists are working on the Large Hadron Collider; the grandest experiment in the history of Physics. Pakistan now ranks among the top outsourcing destinations. As evident from the overall results, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of universities and highly-educated faculty and university graduates in Pakistan. There have also been some instances of abuse of incentives, opportunities and resources provided to the academics in good faith. The quality of some of the institutions of higher learning can also be enhanced significantly, with some revisions in the incentive systems. But overall, I would have an Ata-ur-Raman in charge of education rather than Mir Hazar Khan Bijrani, the current education minister.

Related Links:

Higher Education in Pakistan

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Jinnah's Pakistan Booms Amidst Doom and Gloom

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HEC Initiatives Lauded

Pakistani Universities: Problems and Solutions

Reforming Pakistani Universities

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Global University Rankings Video

HEC Postpones Ranking Universities

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Tags: HEC, Pakistan, budget, education, higher, quality, quantity

Comment by Riaz Haq on January 27, 2009 at 8:18pm
Comment received via email:

It was indeed a pleasure to read your letter in today's DAWN.It contains many thought provoking issues and rare opposition to your mentor and key note speaker.Unfortunately Pervez Hoodbhoy has made it his mission to oppose each and every act of HEC for many years.

I was in Islamabad last week to attend an International conference on Science and Technology.It was held at Quiade Azam University ,and apart from attending the conference I had a chance to visit some of the departments and got immensely satisfied with the work being done there.

When we were on Industrial tour,in 1972 ,there was only one University in Islamabad.Just for fun, one day last week I went around different areas of Islamabad and noticed the number of Universities.Have a look

1.Air University
2.COMSATS Institute of Information Technology
3.Bahria University
4.Allama Iqbal Open University
5.Al Huda University
6.Hamdard University
7.Centre for Advanced Studies in Engineering
8.Federal Urdu University
9.National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences
10.National Defence University
11.Muhammad Ali Jinnah University
12.Iqra University
13.International Islamic University
14.Institute of Cost and Management Accounts of Pakistan
15.National University of Modern Languages
16.Shifa College of Medicines
17.SZABIST(Shaheed ZAB
18.Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences
19.Ripah International University
20.National University of Science and Technology

May be there are more than those listed above.

Comment by Muhammad Saqib Ilyas on January 30, 2009 at 10:40pm
To Mr. Hoodbhoy's article, I would say the following:
1- Several students in the PhD computer science program have published in top International Conferences of their respective areas recently.
2- It's not GRE, but GRE Subject test that is controversial. Sure, students worldwide take GRE exam to seek admission to US universities, but how many US universities require a GRE Subject test to be taken for admission? Not many. And perhaps mostly in the top categories. GRE Subject test in HEC's books is not an entrance criterion, but an exit requirement. That is absurd. In my instance, the student enters through the GRE-like LGAT at LUMS, attends 21 graduate level courses in various areas, taught by teachers qualified with PhDs from top US schools, takes the comprehensive PhD Qualifier exam, which is cleared by an average of 3 out of 25 odd students typically (rough idea based on three exams I have witnessed), and his thesis is internationally reviewed, he cant get a degree unless he publishes at least one conference and a journal paper of repute according to HEC's standards. Then adding the GRE subject test is an absurd requirement. Two students from PhD CS recently took the GRE Subject test and cleared it easily. Mr. Hoodbhoy should spend time elsewhere than coming up with a mathematical model for piety.
3- Sure, learned people should be incharge of HEC, rather than a doctor who treated our corrupt president while he was in jail.
4- Yes, it is not all doom and gloom, as you can see in my comments above. Students are doing quality work, at least at some schools. Where there are no qualified instructors, you can imagine what is going on. We are not taught with a research objective at BS or MS level, so we need expert guidance, except for a few gifted students.
5- Yes, the obscene proliferation of universities like a disease can not sustain quality education. Yes, you need a lot of qualified people. Either you decide to get them by the thousands and be ready to hand out "toilet paper PhD degrees", or if you want quality, then have only as many universities as you can handle well. Beaconhouse is now a university! Come on!
6- IT is meant to solve humanity's problems. IT enables solutions to the toughest problems in medical sciences, agriculture, transportation etc. How many of people like me, earning PhDs in CS will go on to do research that contributes to better crop yields, efficient irrigation systems, disease control systems. Sure, we'll excel in getting GIS on the road, but what will that system do? Sit in the 1% population's Porsche and show them the way to the nearest posh restaurant to pick up a chick?
Comment by Riaz Haq on July 9, 2012 at 5:00pm

Here's a News story about HEC's performance:

To get an understanding of the working of Higher Education Commission (HEC) and developments occurred in the last few years in the sector of higher education in Pakistan, an official delegation of representatives from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan visited HEC head office here in Islamabad.

HEC’s Executive Director, Professor Dr S. Sohail H. Naqvi welcomed the delegation and apprised them about the functions and role of HEC for strengthening the higher education sector in Pakistan. He informed that the establishment of the HEC in 2002 has heralded a revolution in higher education in Pakistan. “The HEC has accomplished more in nine years since its establishment than was achieved in the first 55 years of Pakistan’s existence.”

He said that research output has grown eight-folds since 2002 (from 815 in 2002 to 6,200 in 2011) whereas 80 per cent of these research publications from Pakistan are coming from higher education institutions (HEIs). Naqvi further mentioned that output has more than doubled just in the last three years and is expected to double again in the next 3 years.

He claimed that Pakistan today is a regional leader in ICTs, which other countries are following. The digital library provides access to 75% of the world’s literature (23,000 e-journals and 45,000 e-books). He also informed that due to revolutionary reforms in the sector, Pakistani universities have been included among the top world and Asian universities and Pakistani higher education model is being followed by other Asian countries.

He also highlighted the development strategy of HEC and various steps undertaken to improve quality of teaching and research, equitable access to higher education, university-industry and community linkages and human resource development in Pakistan. The delegation appreciated the role of HEC in brining vibrant and effective changes in the higher education sector of Pakistan and showed keen interest for collaboration with HEC and Pakistani higher education institutions.

The delegation also visited Quaid-i-Azam University and National University of Science and Technology and attended the presentations about these two leading universities. The delegation was led by Sardarbekov, Deputy Governor of Naryn Oblast, Kyrgyzistan and Farkhod Rakhimov, First Deputy Minister Ministry of Education, Tajikistan. Shamsh Kassim Lakha, former federal minister of science and technology and Asadullah Sumbal, senior economist Asian Development Bank along with senior officials of the university of the Central Asia accompanied the delegation.


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