July 27 - Aug 02, 2009

Higher Education in Pakistan is one of the least developed in the entire world. Since last few years, there has in fact been considerable improvement in the higher education scenario of Pakistan in both quantitative and qualitative terms but it does not mean that the progress is reasonable enough to be called satisfactory.

Higher education has always been an important component of the social agenda, but it has acquired a new importance today. In the emerging knowledge economy, nations that fail at creating a decent learning environment will lag behind, and may end up becoming virtual colonies of those that do succeed in this regard.

Pakistan's situation is particularly grave, and some consider the system to be in a virtual state of collapse. Although the private sector (both non-profit and for-profit) has set up a number of good quality institutions of higher education but future projections do not create a basis for much 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 and are affordable by most Pakistanis.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) was established to undertake quality control and maintain standards in teaching, examination, and research in higher education. The record on all these issues is far from satisfactory. The UGC is supposed to act as a typical donor: providing financial support (i.e. grants) in order to obtain adherence to quality criteria. The quality control functions also include accreditation, and guidance on syllabi and research. None of these is done well, and some might not be needed at all.

The UGC's approach is built upon the mythical concept of uniformity. However, in Pakistani higher education, uniformity is a myth. The quality of education everywhere depends upon the institution one attends. Quality and equality are polar opposites in a way. A special problem in Pakistan is that the country has multiple parallel systems of education. First, there is the well known division between the so-called English Medium and Urdu Medium schools that aggravates the existing social and economic divisions and leads to a virtual collapse of system of education in the country. Indeed, the division has both deepened and broadened over recent years as further differentiation has emerged both within the Urdu Medium schools and the English Medium schools. For example, the new schools are emerging for elite and thus there is also a class difference between English medium schools, one is for elite and other for upper-middle class.

Second, and equally important is the divide between the 'formal' educational institutions and the 'informal' institutions, especially the Madaris. The madrassah system differs from the formal educational system.

The problems that are identified in the higher educational system are numerous. These include poor quality of teachers, low student motivation, lack of relevance of the course content to social or economic needs, gender and class disparities, student discipline, outdated curriculum and course materials, fiscal insolvency, and absence of research. Teacher quality is affected adversely by the poor salary and benefits and perverse incentives provided by systems of retention and promotion. Students face an unsatisfactory learning environment, overcrowded classrooms, rote learning, inadequate and outdated teaching materials, and a highly charged political situation. The result is that the vast, rather the overwhelming majority of students emerge from Pakistani universities and colleges with no significant social or technical skills.

In other areas, the situation is even more depressing. There is little emphasis on communication, languages, writing, or the humanities. Built on the tradition of the British system from the 19th century, 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 would be more relevant.

Institutions of higher education are sidelined as most recent subjects and research theories are not being taught in these institutions. The weakness is more evident in science and IT technology.

The problems in higher educational system in Pakistan are both long and depressing.

The funds for higher education in Pakistan usually come from three different sources, via, government, fee income from students and other sources of income i.e. industry, sale of publications, etc. Reliance on government for resources has increased over time instead of decreasing. On the other hand, fee income has also increased many times. The policy makers are not realizing the importance of education and keep on increasing basic cost of education. Whereas other sources hardly contribute 5% of total cost. Higher education has been largely a state funded activity where more than three-quarters of the total expenditure being borne by government. The relative shares of non-government sources such as fees and voluntary contributions are slowly increasing.

On the other side, the needs of the higher education system have been growing rapidly. It is being increasingly realized that public budgets cannot adequately fund higher education, particularly when sectors of mass education are starved of even bare needs. Simultaneously, the demand for higher education has been growing rapidly with comparatively faster growth in enrolment in higher educational institutions than the growth in number of higher educational institutions. As the market is becoming more competitive, students are focusing on specialization. Unfortunately, instead of introducing higher education in science and technology, most of the news courses are being introduced in business education. Essentially we have successfully converted our country into trading country from agri or industrial economy.

It is very easy to see the overall direction of the country's economy by looking at the salary trend in the country. In Pakistan, marketing people are getting highest salaries whereas engineers, scientists, doctors and teachers are struggling. Marketing people are directly related to the trading concerns whereas scientists and engineers are getting highest salaries where industry is growing.

Yet another fact is that the government and HEC are finding it increasingly difficult to even sustain the current level of funding to the institutions of higher education. Managing the present financial liabilities of the universities, especially the state universities, is in utter chaos. The adverse impact of economic condition reflects upon various revenue diversification measures such as hike in student fees, student loan programs operated by commercial banks. Various revenue-raising measures take place in the form of a) raising tuition fee as a significant source of revenue for the support of instructional cost, b) full cost recovery of other fees, and c) sale of research publications.

If public institutions are to achieve higher quality and greater efficiency, governments will need to implement sweeping reforms in higher education financing in mobilizing private financing for public higher education and fostering efficiency in allocating and utilizing resources among and within public institutions.

There are three important economic justifications for government funding for higher education as:

1) Higher education investments generate external benefits important for economic development, such as the long-term return from basic research and from technical development and transfer which is essential for competition and globalization. Hence, public investment on higher education should enhance.

2) Private investment alone in higher education would be socially sub-optimal.

3) Increased role of meritorious students from economically disadvantageous groups

The indicators in terms of allocation of resources to higher education in GDP and intra-sectoral allocation to university and higher education and technical education show a declining trend. It is also evident that enrolment growth has not been accompanied by the growth in public expenditure. This rapid erosion of public resources for the rise in enrolment will have a negative impact on the quality of educational services.

It is essential that the nation achieve universal elementary education, it cannot afford to neglect higher education in the period of globalization. Further, it needs to be realized that all levels of education are interdependent; the principle should not be the growth of one level of education at the cost of another. Private investment alone in higher education would be socially sub-optimal. It is because the private does not come forth to invest on non-market oriented courses in higher education and research and development.

It is equally important to note the required fundamental transformation at both system level and at institutional level in higher education. Effective financial management at institutional level is mandatory. It is essential that funding sources must be diversified but cost-sharing with students has social and political limits, and excessive commercialization of higher education should be forbidden.