July 07 - 13, 2008

Higher education has always been an important component of the social agenda of the government of every country. Now it has attained significant importance. In the emerging "knowledge economy", nations that fail at creating a decent learning environment not only lag behind but often end up becoming virtual colonies of those that do succeed in this regard.

Pakistan faces real precarious situation and some experts consider the system has virtually collapsed. Although the private sector has set up a number of good quality institutions for imparting higher education, they cover less than 5% of the relevant age group, and future projections do not create a basis for any optimism. As a result the primary burden of higher education in Pakistan will have to be borne by public universities and colleges. They serve the vast majority of the population, are affordable and cater to equity along regional, income, and gender dimensions.

A multitude of problems have been identified by the experts. These include poor quality of teachers, low student motivation, lack of relevance of the course content to social and economic needs, gender and class disparities, student discipline, outdated curriculum and course materials, fiscal insolvency, and absence of research. Teachers' quality is affected adversely by the poor salary and benefits and perverse incentives provided by systems of retention and promotion.

Students have to face unsatisfactory learning environment, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate and outdated teaching materials, and a highly charged political situation. The result is that the overwhelming majority of students emerge from Pakistani universities and colleges with no significant social or technical skills.

Notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to scientific and technical education, the quality of these institutions has deteriorated over the decades. The situation is even more depressing because there is little emphasis on communication, languages, writing, or the humanities. Built on the British colonial system the educational programs purport to train students for employment in the public services, and therefore do not provide any training in entrepreneurship, marketing, or other skills that are required at present.

An environment that encourages cheating and corruption mars even the training for public service. More generally, the course content as well as the extra-curricular environment ill-prepares the students for participation in the social and political development of the country. Institutions imparting higher education have not been able to incorporate themes that are necessary to understand the major currents of globalization, corporate concentration, technological revolution, and fundamentalism. Students have learned about these areas mainly from other sources, and often by specialized private education centers.

The weakness is most glaring in the case of the education in technology. Notwithstanding the rising demand, mainstream educational institutions still do not have credible curriculum in the area of information technology, and also do not have any program to provide courses on biotechnology and nanotechnology. Arguably, the physical and social infrastructures of universities and colleges lag far behind in terms of exposure to the new and emerging technologies.

Despite all the ailments that the system of higher education in Pakistan suffers from, the fact remains that there are elements of the system that work fairly well. It is critical that these strengths, where they exist, be identified and harnessed. Similarly, it is important to identify and nurture the emerging changes within the system that have the potential to become the agents for change.

For example, the students who graduate from a few prestigious educational institutions often excel in educational and professional environments abroad. This suggests that the system in Pakistan is capable of producing quality graduates. Within some of these universities there exist centers, departments, and groups that are doing effective teaching and research.

While many of the changes needed might seem intuitively obvious to the outsiders, there are powerful vested interests that either benefit from the status quo or have grown too used to it. They are unlikely to let go without a fight. Such realities need to be understood to facilitate change. The reform process must be strategic in its focus for providing the highest immediate benefit and triggering enduring systemic change in the long run.

Past attempts at higher education reform in Pakistan have often spent more effort in trying to identify and invest in growth areas with future potential rather than concentrating on laying the foundation of a strong ethic of inquiry and research. Such efforts have tended to be unsuccessful. It is far better to focus on the basic principles of good education and work on the assumption that a robust system of higher education will itself gravitate toward emerging opportunities.

It is extremely critical that we learn from the experience of other countries and systems. However, it is even more important that the changes must be proposed keeping in view the realities. For example, it is very important to understand why many countries have moved to a four-year Bachelor's degree, but there is no reason to do so simply because others have done so. Just because a certain thing has 'worked' elsewhere is not enough to assume that it will also work in Pakistan; but understanding why it worked where it did is always of relevance.

It is important to set up evaluation criteria and programs for any reform plan that is initiated. While it is understood that not everything can be measured quantitatively, it is vital that progress be monitored and quantified. This is not only important to keep a track of developments but also because this is where the design learning will come from. Reform is not a once-off initiative; it is an ongoing process. Constant vigilance and evaluation for the purpose of learning and keeping the process on track is necessary.

The main thrust should be on the curriculum rather than individual courses of disciplines. The two-pronged strategy should include 1) a shift to a broad-based general education system and 2), mechanisms to raise the quality of scientific and technical education.

The purpose of constant monitoring is to identify the next growth areas. The best approach is to initiate a system of early specialization rather than purporting general education. There is need to let the high-school students to choose between the arts and the sciences, and college students to select their fields of specialization at early stage.

The general education system offers a broad-based curriculum in high school and college, and defers specialized education until close to graduate programs. The process of initiating a formal process to understand the pros and cons for introducing general education with an eye towards gradually replacing the 2-year Bachelor's degree with a 4-year degree needs to be understood thoroughly.

Pakistan has a long history of failed reforms. The country has witnessed repeated attempts to introduce agricultural and land reforms, administrative reforms, local government reforms, industrial reforms, financial sector reforms etc. In addition, there is also an extensive collection of aborted reform efforts, which exist in our memory only in the form of discarded reports of specially appointed commissions, panels, committees, or task forces i.e. the national commission on agriculture, the local government commission, and the education commission.

These reforms, whether aborted or attempted, were not intended as narrowly focused on small organizations or activity; rather, they were conceived as system wide efforts seeking to change the pattern of behavior across a broad range of actors and institutions. However, most of these did not succeed in achieving the ultimate aims of the reformers; and indeed, most were unsuccessful even in meeting their ostensible and proximate goals.

This less than illustrious experience raises doubts about the wisdom of new reform packages. A pessimist might question what makes the present initiative more likely to succeed than its predecessors. Even an optimist would be compelled to ask how and under what conditions could the previous efforts have succeeded, and whether those conditions or approaches can be created or could be made to inform the present effort.

There is not only the need but also the necessity for a new reform effort in higher education in Pakistan. However, it must take into account the past experiences and mistakes to build on a coherent and clear strategy of both why reform is needed, and how it might be actually implemented.

One can propose a strategy, which is built on three pillars. First, there needs to be clarity about what the reform can and cannot hope to achieve. Experience suggests that the reform process may be quite different from a military exercise, and its goals better served by a continuous mobilization of supporters and protagonists.

Second, a successful reform should aim at creating and strengthening a community of reform champions. The true test of a successful reform is not whether it achieves a limited set of objectives, but whether it stimulates, supports, strengthens, informs, brings together, and otherwise encourages a growing community of champions of reform. These champions must come not only from governmental institutions, but also from the private sector, advocacy groups, the mass media, and others.

Third, the reform must be able to show achievements, without which it is impossible to sustain the support of its advocates and protagonists. To this end, the effort must focus on implementation. The problem is not one of defining what needs to be done; rather, it is of how it can be done.

As regards education, excellent ideas, dating back at least to late fifties have been in circulation, but few have been implemented. In case a new strategy or plan has to be developed it must identify strategic areas. However, the plan cannot be developed without undertaking a process of consultation and discussion at the appropriate levels. Yet, the guiding principal for identifying the strategic targets will be to adopt a systematic approach.

To begin with imparting education must be seen beyond its impact on the economic development of countries. Investments in higher education are well justified on grounds of their social impacts and fostering a just, democratic, and enlightened society.

However, a case can and needs to be also made for the immense economic importance of investing in higher education. Indeed, of all the economic growth initiatives available perhaps none holds more promise and the possibility of large scale, and sustainable returns than the reform, funding and expansion of the Higher Education infrastructure in Pakistan.

The government needs to recognize this potential and demonstrate political will and ensure funding. There are tremendous opportunities for educated-professionals-based services exports and provides the economic growth rationale for transforming higher education in Pakistan.

Pakistan missed the key economic wave of the 1980s commonly referred as globalization. Factories producing all sorts of goods, from textiles to sneakers, computer mother boards to VCRs, toys to cars, restructured their manufacturing plants in the US and Europe and moved production to South East Asian countries. The ASEAN tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, providing good quality factory labor emerged successful but Pakistan lagged behind, mainly because of low literacy and poor level of skills.

Pakistan got another chance with the new wave of services-production globalization, which kicked off in the 1990s and soon took over the entire world. Companies from the US and UK started restructuring of their domestic services "production facilities" and re-locating them to countries which offer trained personnel and cost advantages. These white-collar "professional services" jobs, from technology development to financial transactions processing, rely on 'brain power' and communication links.

Pakistan tried to compete with the neighboring countries, such as India, in producing this 'raw material' of university-educated professionals in high enough quality and quantity it can become a 'services-exporter' rivaling the growth rates of the fastest growing Asian economies.

This was one the opportunities where investment in higher education could have yielded high economic returns. When one looks at the example of India and other countries who have excelled in these areas and past waves of global services production, it is striking that what works is simply a robust system of education. Indeed, a measure of this robustness is the ability of the students being trained to adapt to emerging opportunities and their entrepreneurial confidence in being able to perform.

To highlight the economic potential of investment in higher education one has to explore Indian example in this new global services sector. A key lesson to be highlighted is that to capitalize on this emerging global trend or on other trends that might emerge in the future. Pakistan needs to invest in good education rather than just 'hot' areas. Armed with basic skills and education, students should be able to both identify and capitalize on trends as they emerge.

While there are many other issues the two need due diligence. One, the situation of textbooks and course materials in Pakistan is dismal. At the secondary level, some texts are prepared under the auspices of the various textbook boards. These are of the poorest quality but for their monopoly power do not have substantial readership. At higher levels, most courses use imported texts that are both high cost and lacking in local content, in fact irrelevant to the local needs. This is in spite of the fact that the student body in Pakistan provides a huge potential market for the producers of good quality textbooks. This market needs to be tapped and developed.

Second but more contentious issue is that of student discipline. The rise of student revolt dating back to the 1980s, and the associated phenomenon of the active involvement of political parties in student affairs, has led to a deteriorating situation. University and college administrators are fearful of students, partly for genuine security reasons since many student groups are well armed, and partly for their career concerns, given the strong links between student groups and powerful politicians.

A common view of this problem is that the only response is to involve the students in different curricular and extra-curricular activities and summer programs yielding monetary benefits. While some of the worst excesses have indeed been curbed through involving paramilitary forces, the inadvertent side effect is the deterioration in the quality of the very service that a university has to offer, namely high quality education.

In recent years, there have been cases of senior and highly regarded university professors being fired by the administrator for funny reasons. Some of the experts are of the view that this is a matter not of discipline but of commitment. In all cases where students expect and receive a high quality education and where they perceive the university as having an interest in their long-term welfare, there is very little student unrest.

However, where the quality of education is indifferent or irrelevant to the social and economic needs of the students, and where the university expresses no commitment whatsoever to improving the lives of the students, there is no commitment amongst students to the reputation or peacefulness of the university either.

One of the most important interventions in this area is the establishment of a career counseling service, which takes responsibility for student placement, including counseling on further education, advises the faculty on market trends, and ensures that the curriculum development responds to student and market concerns.

There is an urgent need to involve students more fully in the reform process, namely in building up the brand image of the university, from which they would also hope to benefit in the long run. Among other things, this calls for the reviving of the tradition of student newsletters and magazines in order to exploit their creative talent, train students in writing and creative thinking, and create a forum for the exchange of views and opinions.