There is a dire need to understand the present state of higher education and think about higher education reforms in Pakistan.

Feb 05 - 11, 2007

*The author heads a business school in Karachi and chairs Education Committee of Management Association of Pakistan

Importance of education for future success of an individual or a nation cannot be overemphasized. Importance of education has been very clearly stated in all policy documents, starting from the First Educational Conference in 1947 to the latest National Education Policy for the period 1998-2010. This refers to Qura'an, Hadith, Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the sayings of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, etc.

The resources allocated as a percentage of GNP reflect the commitment of any country to education. Contrary to rhetoric, public spending on education in Pakistan has been lowest by any standard. The spending on education was 2.1% of GNP in 1990-91, peaked to 2.5% in 1996-97 but sank down to 1.6% in 2000-01. In recent years the nation spent roughly 2.1% of its income on education. Other developing countries spent much higher percentage of their income on education, such as, Mongolia (9.0%), Namibia (7.2%), Kenya (7.0%), Tunisia (6.4%), Bhutan (5.2%), Iran (4.9%), India (4.1%), Nepal (3.4%) and Bangladesh (2.4%) to name a few. Spending on education in Pakistan could not increase up to the expected levels, somehow. Without finding the reasons for it, let us move to the key issue - higher education. Higher (or tertiary) education refers to advanced study after secondary education for four or more years, depending on the program pursued at a college, university or professional institution.

It is believed that higher education plays an instrumental role in the rapid growth of an economy and in its integration with other global economies. After continued neglect of more than half a century, the present government realized the importance of higher education and commissioned a taskforce in 2001 - Taskforce on the Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan. The taskforce analyzed the state of higher education in Pakistan and identified key issues.

The taskforce came up with various recommendations, including establishment of Higher Education Commission (HEC). Consequently, HEC was established through a Presidential Ordinance in September 2002 (succeeding defunct University Grants Commission).

Under Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF) 2005-10, HEC identified four core strategic aims: 1) faculty development, 2) improving access, 3) promoting excellence in learning and research and 4) relevance to the economy. Three crosscutting supporting aims were also identified as 1) developing leadership, governance and management, 2) enhancing quality and 3) physical and technological infrastructure development. HEC initiated several programs to implement the agenda as envisioned in MTDF.

Monitoring and evaluation of these ongoing programs is a serious business and not the immediate objective. However, there is a need to come up with an independent mechanism to regularly monitor and evaluate the progress, if any, being made in consistency with the recommendations of the taskforce and MTDF. This would ensure a fair return on substantial resources shifted to higher education, which could have been available for primary and secondary education otherwise. Resource allocation for higher education has shown a phenomenal increase of 127%, from Rs 9.78 billion in 2003-04 to Rs 22.19 billion in 2005-06. Increased investment in primary and secondary education in Pakistan would mean benefiting the common citizen, while increased investment in higher education may benefit those who are already privileged.

Higher education in Pakistan consists of both public and private sectors. However, it appears that HEC is working for the public sector institutions only. Ineffective and inefficient institutions may exist in both public and private sectors. Public money should not be spent through HEC on an ineffective and inefficient institution, even if it exists in the public sector. It may be utilized more productively in the private sector, which also includes few mission-driven and excellent institutions, besides a number of degree-churning mills owned by some industrialists. This is an important issue needing immediate attention of the policy planners.

Moreover, if the regulators follow the International Standard Classification of Education, institutions of higher education also include colleges and professional institutions. By focusing on a few public sector universities, the commission is grossly neglecting several hundred degree and professional colleges that are serving to a wider clientele in higher education. It is the right time policy planners revisit the definition of higher education and higher education institutions of Pakistan.

Currently, the national education policy is also under review. There is need to rethink and align the higher education with overall education to achieve fitness among primary, secondary and tertiary education and gain synergies at federal, provincial and district levels, driving both public and private sectors together to address the collective issues in all the key areas.


The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED-97), published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1997, categorizes tertiary education into two stages - level-5 and level-6. The first stage of tertiary education (level 5) is further divided into two categories - level 5A and level 5B. Level 5A education (termed tertiary type-A by the OECD) covers formal programs that lead to bachelor and masters degrees. It is characterized by theoretical content that give access to advanced research programs and to professions with high general skills requirements. It has a minimum cumulative theoretical duration (at tertiary level) of three years' full-time equivalent (FTE), although this stage may take four or more years to complete. Level 5A programs do not lead directly to an advanced research qualification. Level 5B education (termed tertiary-type B by the OECD) covers more practical or occupationally specific programs that provide participants with a qualification of immediate relevance to the labor market (UNESCO 1997; OECD 2001). Level 5B programs are typically shorter than those of level 5A. They normally have a minimum duration of two years FTE at the tertiary level. The courses typically provide practical, technical or occupational skills for direct entry into the workforce. Level 6 programs lead to advanced research qualifications such as a PhD. They prepare graduates for research posts and for joining university faculty.

Sources: UNESCO (1997); OECD (2001)


(% of GNP)































Source: Economic Survey of Pakistan



* Ineffective governance and management structures and practices.
* Inefficient use of available resources.
* Inadequate funding.
* Poor recruitment practices and inadequate development of faculty and staff.
* Inadequate attention to research and support for it.
* Politicization of faculty, staff and students.
* Strong skepticism about realization of reforms.

Source: Draft Final Report (2002) by Taskforce on the Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan, Challenges and Opportunities.