HIGHER EDUCATION IN PAKISTAN

Are we producing quality?

By SHABBIR H. KAZMI
Nov 27 - Dec 03, 2006

Access to education is the right of every individual because it enhances human capabilities. Education enables individuals in making informed decisions and let their voice be heard by the decision makers. It is also a vehicle for nation building. At the national level, education ushers in economic growth by increasing skilled workforce, thus increasing productivity. At the individual level education is directly correlated to better income generating prospects.

However, Pakistan ranks the lowest in higher education in the world in enrolment rates. According to a report by the steering committee for higher education released in 2001, only 2.6% of the students between 17-23 were enrolled in universities. On top of this education provided was not up to the mark. This is evident from the fact that not a single Pakistani university is ranked among the top 500 universities of the world.

Following past decades of under investment, the renewed realization of the Government of Pakistan of the importance of the higher education sector towards fuelling economic growth led to the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002. Founded by a Presidential Ordinance, the Commission has been entrusted with a broad mandate to evaluate, improve and promote the higher education and research sector in Pakistan. The Commission has been set to facilitate development of indigenous universities to be world-class centers of education, research and development. Through facilitating this process, the HEC intends to play its part in spearheading the building of a knowledge-based economy in Pakistan.

Since its establishment, the Commission has undertaken a systematic process of implementation of the five-year agenda for reforms outlined in the HEC Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF), in which Access, Quality and Relevance have been identified as the key challenges faced by the sector. To address these challenges a comprehensive strategy has been defined that identifies the core strategic aims for reform as 1) Faculty Development, 2) Improving Access, 3) Excellence in Learning and Research and 4) Relevance to National Priorities. These strategic aims are supported by well-integrated crosscutting themes for developing Leadership, Governance and Management, enhancing Quality Assessment and Accreditation and Physical and Technological Infrastructure Development.

The major thrust of programs being developed by HEC is directed towards developing a strong base of PhD faculty members and qualified professionals. This involves scholarship programs for increasing the PhD faculty base as well as providing enhanced facilities to existing PhD qualified faculty to ensure that they have an intellectually stimulating academic career. The scholarship programs are being developed for students as well as the faculty to attain PhD degrees both within as well as outside the country.

HEC is guided by the principle of supporting excellence, as defined by universal indicators. Relevant areas, where the ability to provide for quality education exists within the country, are supported to the best possible degree in Pakistan. For other areas, where Pakistan is weak, more scholarship programs are being developed. Several scholarship schemes are currently being implemented by HEC including foreign scholarship, fellowships and indigenous programs. Under these various schemes, PhD scholars in all disciplines of strategic national significance are proceeding to various recognized foreign universities, institutions and research centers.

The post-doctoral fellowship program provides an opportunity to a hundred active university teachers holding PhD degrees to work in international well-equipped universities or research laboratories of the world in the priority fields of basic and applied sciences, engineering, agriculture, social sciences and humanities. This program gives them an opportunity to update their knowledge and skills and to interact with the researchers of other developed countries. Seventy percent of the scholarships were awarded in basic and applied sciences including mathematics, engineering, agriculture and biotechnology. A further 30 percent were allocated to social sciences, including arts and humanities.

In a nutshell, through the Faculty Hiring Program, HEC aspires to bring a positive change in the culture of higher education institutions in all domains of academic activities including development of infrastructure, academic standards, curriculum, knowledge dissemination through refined teaching / examination / grading methodologies, industry-academia linkage, international collaborative research and fine supervisory acumen which results in creation of knowledge. There has been a considerable progress in all areas in which it was anticipated that the Faculty Hiring Programs would bring improvements.

The faculty programs are divided into two parts, the hiring of foreign experts and researchers from abroad and local retired eminent faculty members. The foreign experts, who will bring tremendous wealth of knowledge and research experience, will be expected to impart modern and progressive outlook academic standards to be emulated by their local colleagues. The program will generate linkages between local and foreign institutions, encouraging long-term sustainable scientific collaborations. Foreign faculty members will be expected to supervise world class graduate level research and deliver cutting edge graduate level courses in their academic disciplines. The retired national eminent scholars shall be engaged in teaching and research in public sector institutions of higher education hence making use of the experience amassed by them, which is vital for capacity building of local faculty wherever it is required.

In order to ensure that academic standards in Pakistan meet international norms of quality, the HEC seeks the services of foreign experts in various disciplines from universities in leading industrialized countries to provide consultation in a variety of critical areas. The HEC has mandated consultation from foreign experts when awarding PhD degrees; ensuring that each thesis is refereed and approved by at least two experts from technologically advanced countries before a doctoral degree is awarded. Faculty appointments under the recently instituted Model Tenure Track Scheme are also subject to international review. Under this system permanent faculty positions in universities are provided subject to the demonstration of excellence in an initial probationary period, as determined by a body of subject specific international experts.

Pakistan is among the signatories of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the Dakar World Education Forum 2000. The GoP has taken several policy and program initiatives to achieve these international goals. The National Plan of Action for Education for All was initiated in response to the commitment made at Dakar for World Summit. The Education Reform Action Plan (ESR), which is built upon the National Education Policy 1999-2000 is a long-term plan. There are three main goals that are the underlying objectives that include universal access to primary education by increasing the net enrolment and higher rate of survival of children till 5th grade, increase in the adult literacy rate and to attain gender equality at all levels.

This is the official version justifying creation of HEC and highlighting its work. However, academicians and experts have a contrary view about the existing system of higher education. The overwhelming consensus is that ever since the government has allowed the private sector to establish higher education/degree awarding institutions the country has witnessed phenomenal increase in the number of institutions. However, hardly a few are mission-driven while the rest are nothing but business ventures, yielding very high return on investment.

Some institutions are charging exorbitant fees by claiming that they have purpose-built infrastructure. However, the most important element of qualified, well trained and dedicated faculty is missing. Promoters of such institutions say with great pride that they have a long list of visiting faculty, which is far superior to full time faculty. Had they hired respected names from the corporate sector, intellectuals or very senior professors, the situation would have been different. The fact is a number of these visiting faculty members fall in the category 'hawkers'. They do not spend more than a few hours at any particular institution in a day and are always on the move from one place to another.

The common observation is that the institutions often do not know, what to teach, how to teach, when to teach and above all who will teach. Ironically, those who wish to bring a change are most disliked and often become victim of policy. The same is also true about HEC. It is another name for the University Grants Commission. Its key responsibility is to improve universities operating in the public sector, which get grant from the government. However, HEC seems to be poking its nose in matters, which are not part of its prime responsibility.

An academician said, "Our biggest problem is that we have not defined our national objectives. Lack of clearly defined objectives does not allow us develop curriculum. We have been following curriculum but one really does not know why are we teaching these outrageous subjects/topics? Therefore, first we have to define our national objectives, develop the right curriculum and find appropriate faculty to deliver the desired results. The quality of finished product - graduates - is directly dependent on input quality, curriculum and process of teaching, though there could be certain exceptions."

Another seasoned academician said, "We are trying to construct a skyscraper on week walls having no foundations. It is pity that over the last five decades we have not been able to introduce a need-based education system. The irony is we want to produce graduates of international standards but our basic, primary and secondary education just does not help. We have to bring radical changes in basic education but the will is missing and all the other ingredients are inappropriate."

CORE STRATEGIC TARGETS

PHYSICAL TARGETS

Faculty Development

The percentage of faculty members in Universities and Degree Awarding Institutions having Ph.D. degree is to be increased to 40% in 5 years, and thereafter a 10% per annum increase in percentage should occur yearly.

100% of the faculty should have undergone 1 3 month training courses emphasizing pedagogical skills, communications skills and information technology usage skills

Improving access

Enhance enrollment in Universities and Degree Awarding Institutions to 500,000 in five years, excluding distance education programs.

Enhance enrollment to 1,000,000 students in distance education programs.

Ensure that any student obtaining admission on merit is able to obtain higher education regardless of his/her financial condition

Improving excellence in learning and research

Increase the total number of people in Pakistan involved with Research and Development in Science and Engineering from the current level of 69 people / million to 300 people/ million.

Increase production of Indigenous Ph.D.s inside the country to 1,500 per year.

Introduce Ph.D. programs in at least 50% of the departments in Universities and Degree Awarding Institutions.

Have a 40% per annum growth in the number of International publications of faculty members.

Have a 25% per annum growth in External Research grants won by Institutions from sources other than Government sources

Ensuring relevance to economy

Establish 10 Technology Incubation Parks

Enhance patent applications from Engineering Universities to at least 20 per year per Institution

Enhance the number of joint University-Industry projects being undertaken at Universities to at least 5 per Institution

Entrepreneurship courses to be included in all Engineering programs as well as Science and Technology advanced programs

Source: Medium Term Development Framework 2005-10, Higher Education Commission.