Institutions of higher education have the main responsibility of equipping individuals with the advanced knowledge and skill required for various positions in the public and private sector. It is these institutions that provide the teachers, doctors, civil servants, engineers, scientists and social scientists who work in various fields and social sector organisations.

Without the participation of highly qualified manpower, the process of economic development cannot be achieved and the society cannot be put on the path of development, progress and prosperity. That is why the demand for higher education in various parts of the world has increased during the last one or two decades, Pakistan being no exception to that trend.

According to one estimate about 63 per cent population here is under the age of 25 years. However, this precious human resource cannot be used for meaningful economic growth until they are properly educated and imparted necessary skills to be mentally active and economically productive. This requires investment in building human capital. So every effort needs to be made to increase enrolment rates at all levels, including primary, secondary and tertiary as well as improving the quality of education in schools, colleges and universities. Seen in this context, the education system in Pakistan portrays a very dismal picture. Analysis of educational enrolment data at school and higher level for the last one decade reveals an un-proportionate expansion.

Traditionally, in Pakistan the rate of enrolment in higher education remains minimal. However, we have recently observed some radical changes in the policies of higher education by the government in an effort to rejuvenate the system and to expand research and development activities. Allocation of enhanced financial resources and improvement of the infrastructure is the salient feature of this effort.

The process started in the early 2000s as a consequence of the initiative taken by the World Bank and Unesco. In the past, both Unesco as well as the World Bank had been interested in promoting basic and primary education with the belief that achieving universal primary education and improving its quality is essential for developing an egalitarian society.

However, lately the World Bank adopted the policy funding higher education as well. Unesco and the World Bank’s efforts paved the way for the constitution of the Task Force on Higher Education in 1997 which comprised 14 educationists and development experts taken from 13 countries of the world including Pakistan. The Task Force released its report “Higher Education in Developing Counties: Perils and Promise” in 2000.

This report not only triggered the establishment of a similar task force in Pakistan, it also served as its basis and provided guidelines for the declaration and recommendations of the report. The Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan released its report in March 2002 and recommended for the establishment of an autonomous body to cater to the needs of higher education in the country leading to the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in the same year.

The HEC made sincere efforts and was able to achieve expansion in the number of institutions and the rate of enrolment in higher education institutions. Consequently, Pakistan has witnessed an exponential growth in enrolment in the higher education sector particularly during the last decade or so. On the contrary, the number of primary schools in the public sector have actually declined, although enrolment at primary level has slightly increased. However, increase in enrolment at the higher education level is much higher than the one observed at the primary level.

Tables 1 and 2 give detailed figures pertaining to the expansion of higher education and the primary education during the last 15 years. The number of higher education institutions in the country increased from 46 in 1999 to 138 in 2011-12. Enrolment in higher institution during the same period increased from 91637 to 1,413,478. Thus there has been a 200pc increase in the number of higher education institutions from 1999 to 2011-12 with 1,442pc increase in its enrolment. This is in addition to the expansion in the number and enrolment in arts and science colleges and the professional education institutions. On the other hand we have observed about 3pc decrease in the number of public primary schools in the country, although enrolment in primary schools has increased by 31pc.

Access, quality and sustainability

This substantial amplification in higher education vis-a-vis primary education raises a number of questions about the access, equity and quality of education, and sustainability of higher education expansion.

The main provider of higher education in the past has been the government itself, the private sector entered into this phenomenon later during the late 1980s. As higher education was highly subsidised, the beneficiary of this subsidy was the upper class. Available data indicates that this pattern still exists and there is an inequitable access to higher education as most of the population living below or near the poverty line cannot afford the cost associated with it.

The second question relates to the equitable distribution of resources. In Pakistan a large disparity — gender, regional or provincial disparity and rural-urban disparity, to name a few — with reference to education exists between different sections of the society. Removal of these disparities demands equitable distribution of resources not only between the different sub-sectors of the society but also between different levels of education. In a country with a literacy rate of about 58pc and primary enrolment rate of 56, expansion of higher education while ignoring lower education will promote more disparities and more inequalities. Education can be a great leveller in such circumstances, provided access to it at all levels, including higher education is uniform.

The most crucial issue is the quality of higher education and its completion rate. Many students who enrol themselves at the higher education level fail to complete the degree and those who succeed, lack the competence and skills aimed at by a particular degree programme.

Some critics are of the view that the HEC has achieved the objectives of increasing the enrolment at the higher education level but it does not have the capacity and ability to assure quality because of too rapid an expansion. No effective mechanism exists to assess the quality of learning and instruction imparted at higher education institutions.

Last but not the least is the issue of sustainability of higher education expansion. There is a rising trend of establishment of universities and degree-awarding institutes in Pakistan. There are now 57 public-sector universities and degree-awarding institutions and 54 private-sector universities and degree-awarding institutions in Pakistan. Very recently, rapid establishment of sub-campuses of the chartered universities in other cities as well as establishing sub-campuses under public-private partnership, particularly in the Punjab, has been observed also.

The question is: whether such expansion will be sustainable given the current rate of enrolment at the school level? This should be construed as an argument against the expansion of higher education rather than an argument for allocating more resources to school education for developing an egalitarian society and achieving the goal of social inclusion and development. It’s only that expansion in higher education can be sustained.

The writer is a retired professor and Dean Faculty Education, University of the Punjab, currently working as an independent consultant.