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DAWN - Editorial; February 10, 2007

Published Feb 10, 2007 12:00am

The Makkah declaration

WILL the Palestinian factions choose to abide by Thursday’s agreement? Brokered by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and signed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal after marathon talks, the agreement envisions a government of national unity in the West Bank and Gaza. This has been the sticking point since Hamas’s landslide victory in parliamentary elections last year. Fatah, evidently, has not yet reconciled itself to the loss of power which it exercised following the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organisation with Yasser Arafat as its head in 1964. Two factors combined to erode Fatah’s popularity. One was the Oslo accords, which many Palestinian leaders thought had some grave omissions. For instance, the declaration of principles signed in Washington on Sept 13, 1993, made no reference to the question of Palestinian refugees, and it also left the future of Al Quds to final-status talks. Two, once in power, Fatah seemed to run out of its crusading zeal. Arafat created a bureaucratic set-up — consisting of 140,000 civil servants — which was too big for the Palestinian Authority. His argument was that the large bureaucracy was needed to reduce unemployment and help the martyrs’ families. This enabled Hamas to attack Fatah on two counts: a purported sell-out to Israel and corruption.

Even though it was founded as far back as in 1987 jointly by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantessi — both later murdered by Israel — it was after Arafat moved to occupied Palestine in the aftermath of the Oslo accords that Hamas began gaining support. This it did because it established a social welfare network that helped Palestinian families which were victims of Israeli persecution. No wonder, in the post-Arafat period, it should have done so well in the elections. The issue on which Prime Minister Ismail Haniye showed a lack of spirit of compromise was in making a government of national unity. Granted that it had swept the polls, Hamas should have realised that President Abbas was a Fatah leader and that the PA needed stability so that it could forge a united front to deal with Israel. The Jewish state and its allies did not help matters when they decided to cut off all non-humanitarian assistance to the Hamas government. In turn, Fatah exploited the situation when the PA failed to pay salaries to its civil servants. The resultant clashes between the two have left at least 25 people dead. A continuation of what virtually was a civil war would have helped Israel and further diminished whatever chances there were of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Makkah declaration could turn out to be seminal if all parties to the dispute adhere to it. The agreement allows Prime Minister Haniye to retain his post but it gives the interior ministry to an independent. In the interest of the Palestinian struggle, Fatah and Hamas have no option but to implement the accord in letter and spirit so as to undertake necessary reforms and strengthen national unity. Hamas has already declared that it believes in a two-state solution, thus indirectly accepting the existence of Israel. It now remains to be seen whether the US, which is pledged to a two-state solution, is able to pressure Israel into resuming peace talks with the Hamas-led government.

New power plan

MORE power to the government if it can pull it off. On Thursday, the Private Power and Infrastructure Board approved of an ambitious but necessary $5.4 billion power plan that aims at adding some 4,200MW to the country’s existing generation capacity in three to seven years. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, total installed generation capacity stood at 19,439MW in 2005-06. This figure is only 10 per cent higher than what it was in 1999. Fuelled by rapid economic expansion and a growing population, demand for electricity has been rising by more than eight per cent a year and now exceeds summertime supply by nearly 2,000MW, a shortfall that could to increase to 5,300MW by 2010. Over 60 per cent of the projects envisaged under the new plan will be based on coal and natural gas, with hydropower schemes in the NWFP and Azad Kashmir accounting for 1,620MW of the total output. Though relatively expensive to operate, thermal power projects have become inevitable in the short term, courtesy the authorities’ abject failure over the last eight years to plan for the future. Still, it is encouraging to note that coal-fired plants are being given due emphasis. Although they will be run on imported coal, the electricity generated should be significantly cheaper than what is produced by oil-based plants. Ultimately, one hopes, the country’s vast indigenous coal deposits will be the source of supply for all such projects.

Along with thermal and hydropower plants, the government must accelerate efforts to fully exploit renewable energy sources. While solar energy is still an expensive proposition, wind and biomass power have already proven their cost-effectiveness in other countries. Geothermal power is another option that ought to be explored in earnest. Increasing generation capacity is, however, only one side of the coin. Transmission and distribution losses must also be tackled forthwith. Wapda’s T&D losses stood at 21 per cent in 2005-06, while 34.4 per cent of the KESC’s total available units were lost in transmission and distribution. This wanton waste of a precious resource is unacceptable. The transmission network must be overhauled and electricity thieves dealt with an iron hand.

Another plagiarising professor

ARE the increasing cases of plagiarism amongst teachers symptomatic of society’s propensity to take a short cut to success? While Punjab University mulls over the fate of five of its physics professors caught plagiarising, another case has been discovered that calls for swift action against the accused. This time an associated professor in its psychology department has been charged with lifting material from international publications. The complainant, a female teacher in the same department, reported the crime to the administration on Nov 20 last year, but no action has been taken yet. This should not come as a surprise given that the university has yet to take action against the five professors caught in intellectual thievery. What is all the more shocking is the university’s decision to transfer the complainant to another department because it wants to restore a “conducive environment” to the psychology department. This warped logic sends a negative signal: the wrongdoers will be protected and those who do right will be punished. Even more disappointing is the university registrar’s comments on the complainant, as reported in Thursday’s paper. While promising to conduct an inquiry into the matter in an impartial manner, he called the complainant “an emotionally unstable” woman. Such misogynistic comments are in bad taste.

The more the cases of plagiarism are detected, the more important it is for the administration to take immediate — and strict — action. It can take a cue from the Government College University’s decision last month to sack a professor found guilty of plagiarism. At the very least, it can suspend the plagiarising faculty members until an inquiry is complete. This will restore confidence in the relevant departments and among students who deserve to be taught by good teachers and not by those who violate ethical codes. Those who employ short cuts are never victorious — and the country’s history is replete with examples that prove the point.

HEC’s unconvincing mega projects

By Pervez Hoodbhoy


THE on-going efforts at reforming higher education are turning into a disaster. Billions are being spent on mindless mega projects. The 15-fold increase in the funding of Pakistani universities over the last six years may have delivered a marginal improvement, but it is superficial and likely to be temporary.

These facts are the subject of a researched article, “In Pakistan, the Problems That Money Can Bring”, published in the January 2007 issue of the well-respected New York based Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle notes that in Pakistan the failure of the HEC (Higher Education Commission) to create and adequately implement rules has caused an explosion of substandard universities, fake and substandard degrees, meaningless research publications and a massive wave of unpunished plagiarised academic papers.

More grand folly is in the works. Among the government’s most expensive projects are the nine new engineering universities to be spread across the country. Officially associated with France, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Germany, Japan, as well as other countries, these universities are supposed to meet the acute shortage in Pakistan of international quality engineering education. Contrary to the general impression that these are foreign funded, in fact 100 per cent of the development, recurrent and salary costs will be paid for by Pakistan. This would be okay if the basic ingredients for success were there. They are not.

First, there are far too few qualified Pakistanis who can teach modern engineering subjects at an international professional level. There may be no more than two to three dozen suitable engineering professors in all of Pakistan’s engineering universities. This is a tiny fraction needed by the Rs 26 billion French University (the proposed name is UESTP-France@Karachi) which will eventually require 600 qualified Pakistani Ph.D teachers. The Rs 37 billion Pak-Swedish University, to be located in Sialkot, will need even more. Add more universities (Italy, Austria, Japan…), and you begin to glimpse the scale of the problem!

Looking for so many Pakistani engineering professors living abroad will not help. A national and international search by the upcoming LUMS School of Science and Engineering has – after two years of intensive effort – netted less than a dozen suitable future faculty members, with perhaps another dozen or two in the pipeline. This is despite LUMS’ good reputation and the very high salaries it has offered. Nothing can change the simple fact that Pakistanis in science and engineering subjects, whether at home or abroad, are far too few in numbers.

So, does the answer lie in sending thousands of Pakistanis to the West for a Ph.D in engineering or science and then waiting a few years? This route, while superficially attractive, also has serious difficulties. Foreign training is expensive. Many will not return, some because they did not succeed and others because they succeeded too well.One also fears that many of the ones who do return after completing their Ph.Ds would not have really mastered their respective disciplines. Approximately, a thousand Pakistanis sent recently to European universities have been selected on the basis of a rather trivial locally made numeracy and literacy test. International level tests were not required of students sent to Europe. (But, in a public declaration of its state of confusion and muddle-headedness, the HEC has placed advertisements in national newspapers formally requiring the authentic, but more difficult, international GRE subject test for registration into the Ph.D programmes of Pakistani universities!)

Visiting teams of European professors interviewed Pakistani students but, according to the students I have talked to, these were generally rather perfunctory. For whatever reasons, these teams were apparently softer than normal when selecting Pakistanis. This unfortunately means that Pakistanis returning from European universities will not be as good as others who have studied at the same universities.

So, what about hiring a European teaching faculty? Plans say that the heads of the new engineering universities will be professors from the EU countries, and Europeans will constitute five to 10 per cent of the total faculty strength. Let us set aside for the moment that Pakistan will pay the visiting European professors EU level salaries (with a 40 per cent mark-up to cover other expenses). The question still remains whether these professors will be accomplished teachers or researchers, or whether they are second-raters in their own countries.

Past experience of bringing faculty from abroad has not been good. There is scarcely a white European or American to be found in any Pakistani university. Huge salaries paid under the HEC’s four-year old foreign faculty programme has brought to Pakistan a handful of good dedicated professionals on contract appointments. They are guiding students, teaching and doing research. But the overwhelming majority of the foreign faculty comprises academic mercenaries from Russia, Ukraine, the Central Asian republics, as well as expatriate Pakistanis. They have little interest beyond the pecuniary.

The reliance on European faculty for Pak-European universities is obviously critical. But, according to French sources, as of early February 2007, no French vice-chancellor or faculty member has yet been appointed. (Pak-French will be followed by Pak-Sweden in 2008 and then other universities). Nevertheless, teaching officially starts in 2007. This bespeaks a planning disaster of grand proportions.

Worse may lie ahead. Suicide attacks within Pakistan are now averaging two a week or more. Will this discourage long-term European faculty in residence? How many professionally active foreign scientists and engineers will opt for a life under barricades and armed guards in places like Sialkot, Multan or Khairpur?

These are daunting conditions for developing higher education in Pakistan – for any policymaker. The problems are many, not just that of adequate faculty for the nine engineering universities. For example, the tens of thousands of academically well-equipped, entry-level students, who would constitute the input into the Pak-European universities, will not be available for many years. This would be true even if things start going perfectly well as of today.

Whim dominates planning. The HEC’s urge to constantly trumpet victory is moving higher education away from the path of the patient and careful academic development that it needs. Various products of an unconstrained imagination, such as the nine Pak-European universities, have been approved without a proper feasibility study. Senior government officers, whose duty it is to guard public finances, have surrendered under fear and political pressure.

In any country that abides by the basic principles of governance, this would surely be sufficient reason for a public inquiry. The planning commission and the finance ministry are said to have already released hundreds of millions of rupees for the Pak-European university project on the basis of a skimpy two-page “concept paper”. This bypasses the usual “PC-1 form” procedure – a protective mechanism, which even if inadequate, was devised to prevent waste through haste.

Pakistan needs sober and reasoned education planning, not fantasy. Yes, we do need foreign assistance to build up a working higher education system. But a realistic and modest course of action with real chances of success would have to be designed differently. We should initially aim for, at the very most, two properly planned new engineering universities under the collective authority of the European Union. We also need external help for adding engineering departments to existing universities, and to massively upgrade existing ones. It is still not too late to ask for this.

The writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

pervezhoodbhoy@yahoo.com

Wartime budgeting

IN an otherwise lean budget, President Bush's defence spending request has produced some sticker shock. The $481 billion proposal for fiscal 2008 reflects an 11 per cent increase over this year; including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the $623 billion total is 60 per cent larger than the defence budget that Mr. Bush inherited in 2001. Some analysts argue that the spending is historically outsized, pointing out that the total spent or requested for the two ongoing wars is greater than the cost incurred in Vietnam.

In fact there is some excess in the Pentagon's spending plan -- but many of the comparisons being drawn are deceiving. As a share of the US economy, defence spending was at a near-historic low before Sept. 11, 2001, and even if Mr. Bush's new budget is fully funded, it will still be well below the average over the past century. Defence spending is now just under 4 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with 9.5 per cent during Vietnam; the Reagan-era buildup took a 50 per cent larger piece of national output.

A big part of the new spending meets demands that Democrats in Congress have been making for some time.

—The Washington Post



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007