How the HEC is wronging Pakistan's scholars

Published June 9, 2015
Until urgent measures are not taken to boost creativity and performance, our research or researchers are unlikely to solve our problems. —Creative commons
Until urgent measures are not taken to boost creativity and performance, our research or researchers are unlikely to solve our problems. —Creative commons

The Social Sciences discipline has long remained an extremely neglected and mistreated subject area in Pakistan. Our present complex policy, security, societal, local and regional challenges demand a great deal of scientific investigation through high quality and cutting-edge research. But, it seems the Higher Education Commission (HEC), which should be spearheading this cause, is yet to even recognise the actual role assigned to universities when it comes to Social Sciences.

In the Pakistani academic environment today, there is very limited knowledge growth happening to serve the needs of today's users and beneficiaries. The HEC has been largely ineffective in providing institutions with strategic direction, manpower and budgetary support.

It has neither reinvigorated the research culture nor revived the higher education system to meet the challenges our society faces.

Also read: The HEC should never rank Pakistan's universities

Essentially, institutions like the HEC are designed to utilise the assets of the nation’s scholarship. But there is no constructive networking in this field, very little university involvement in research and negligible public awareness of the Social Sciences subject.

Yes, there is a dissemination of knowledge on strategic and political issues through dialogue, conferences or seminars regularly conducted by the leading think-tanks in Islamabad. However, unless such practices are exercised at the university-level, on a regular basis, with apt input from groups associated with local communities, the resultant discourse will never be as productive and meaningful.

How did the HEC fail?

Lack of vision and institutional policy framework

Firstly, the HEC failed to institutionalise its policy structure on Social Sciences the way the international academic world would expect. The kind of strategic outlook and robust mechanism provided – in terms of intellectual investment in promoting the cause of higher education, producing quality journals, building universities up to the international standard, and working under a broad vision – is as good as absent in the present framework of this institution.

This 'framework' needs to be revamped with foresighted leadership, both in terms of increasing budgets and expanding consistently the chain of quality production that a nation in the 21st century requires. It was recently reported that the overall fund for the HEC will not be increasing; this is bound to be a setback to the progress of HEC and universities in general.

Mistreatment of foreign-qualified PhDs

The HEC's treatment of foreign-qualified PhDs (those who went abroad during President Musharraf’s tenure and have returned, now holding positions in local institutions) is no better. By overloading fresh PhDs with extensive workload, the HEC failed to receive quality output from them.

For example, each qualified faculty member conducts three courses (four credit hours each) during a semester, supervises five PhDs along with a maximum of 16 M. Phil theses at a time.

What can be expected from such overloaded faculties except little or no credible output?

When it comes to positions and incentives, the Higher Education Commission's criteria makes no distinction between domestic and foreign-qualified PhDs. The intent here is not to undermine the credibility of indigenous PhD scholars, but to urge authorities to focus on awarding skills rather than degrees.

When the HEC spends millions of rupees on producing a single PhD from abroad, it would do better to extract maximum plausible quality output from them. Their work needs to be recognised; they deserve due time, space and resources for undertaking meaningful projects; they should be aptly incentivised and rewarded so that they may continue to serve this nation. As it stands, the current situation is more akin to 'punishing' them for working for education rather than rewarding them

Recognition of published work not there

The HEC's practices in terms of acknowledging the publications of scholars need major fixes.

Currently, PhDs who have written academic books published with the internationally established publishers are being offered little to no credit for their hard work. It takes several months and years to even get their publications officially recognised, which causes deep frustration and damages the culture of quality research.

Under the HEC rules, a PhD faculty is required to publish at least 10 manuscripts in HEC-recognised journals, along with four years of post-PhD teaching experience to qualify for the associate level position. Unlike how it is abroad, having published a book adds no value to your credentials in the eyes of the HEC.

Also read: The sorry state of research at our universities and how to fix it

Also, when it comes to article publication in academic journals, the HEC seems to lack a defined criterion of distinction between publication in international journals and local HEC-recognised journals. It is not clear which journals, if any, are given more credence and weightage than others.

For example, the HEC recognises articles published in international journals if, and only if, they fall within the Thomson Reuters list of publications. Thomson Reuters may be a big and reliable production scheme, but it is far from a comprehensive index of all quality journals out there.

The list is dominated by applied sciences journals. Although one may find a few quality social sciences journals within the Thomson Reuters list, these journals could be of limited scope, in turn depriving a qualified Social Scientist of opportunities to get his work published in an HEC-recognised journal, especially work within the broader realm of Social Sciences.

There are numerous lists of high quality Social Science academic journals one finds in the Scopus, Routledge and Australian Academic Association, which the HEC can and should incorporate. It needs to find a balance and facilitate both applied and social sciences.

Ideally, the HEC should be an effective, responsible and strong educational body, whose initiatives promote research culture within universities. To this end, it is in dire need of generating funds, building national and global partnerships, and learning from others’ best practices.

It needs to spend much more in terms of enhancing the standard of the higher education system, transforming its logistical and structural setup to bring it up to international standards, and facilitating research endeavours on a large scale.

Until urgent measures are not taken to support high-quality basic, strategic and applied research along with the relevant postgraduate training in Social Sciences, our 'research' will unlikely solve any problems; our academicians will never turn into productive workforce.

By extension, that means we will never have the scholars to tackle our most pressing social and economic challenges, or ones that have a broader impact on the Pakistani society.


Dr. Rizwana Abbasi received her PhD from University of Leicester, UK. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Islamabad. She has authored a book titled, Pakistan and the New Nuclear Taboo: Regional Deterrence and the International Arms Control Regime (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012).

Dr. Zafar Khan is a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Hull, UK. He is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Islamabad. He authors the book entitled, Pakistan’s Nuclear Policy: a Minimum Credible Deterrence (Routledge 2015).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NDU, Islamabad.



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