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Flawed degrees

September 19, 2016


DO PhD programmes at typical Pakistani public universities fit our circumstances? A PhD programme has two essential components: coursework involving classroom teaching, and thesis involving research. Which should receive greater attention, if public universities cannot focus on both? With a degree from a local public university of good repute and experience in teaching in PhD programmes and in supervising and examining theses at local public universities, I shall attempt to answer these questions.

PhD programmes in the US focus heavily on coursework as well as thesis. Coursework of 40 plus credit hours (CRH) is common; some universities require up to 60 CRH. However, PhD programmes in England focus primarily on theses requiring little or no dissertation-specific coursework. The assumption is that the student has mastered theory at the MPhil level.

Our Higher Education Commission requires coursework of only 18 CRH for PhD. Most universities have adopted this, although it’s specified as the minimum requirement. HEC’s guidelines draw inspiration from the UK system, but applying them in Pakistan is problematic.

Local PhD programmes are not suited to conditions in our society.

First, the assumption that theory has been mastered at the MPhil level does not hold true here. As per Pakistan’s education report Aser, 2015, a very large number of Grade-5 students cannot do two-digit subtraction or division. Is such deficiency limited to school education only? No. It is pervasive. Judging by Aser’s findings, it is difficult to expect that what is taught in MPhil has already been learned. PhD being the ultimate degree, the programmes should address all deficiencies.

Second, do our circumstances allow a heavy focus on thesis that is characteristic of UK programmes?

Supervisors in public universities cannot be expected to strive too hard to produce a thesis. Public servants tend to shirk work: we have no reason to believe that thesis supervisors are nobler than typical public servants. After all, they belong to the same society and get similar incentives — neither can be fired for non-performance.

Students begin PhD at an age suitable for entering the job market. Financially constrained, they find a job they can survive on as soon they complete the coursework. This diverts focus from the thesis. Typically, students submit a poor thesis very close to the deadline. The supervisor and the university have two choices. One, make the student work further; this means s/he would cross the deadline and may not qualify for the degree. The thesis will then not grace the supervisor’s CV and s/he may lose the remuneration as well. An alternative is to let the thesis go, more or less in its present poor form, and manoeuvre the system to the advantage of the student, supervisor and university. Experience suggests that supervisor and university choose the latter.

Though systems are in place to ensure quality, these are easily manipulated. In developed countries, a PhD thesis is refereed by experts. Choosing experts connected with the supervisor or someone at the university, including Pakistanis based abroad, is not uncommon. The conclusion is obvious.

A national expert examines the thesis’s oral defence. Evidence of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ is common on such occasions: within the close academic community of a specific discipline, you as supervisor induce your university to invite X from XYZ university and they invite you to do the same. It is a reciprocal arrangement.

As thesis examiner, when you are about to write the letter grade on the grade sheet, an academic peer among the audience may remark ‘waisay bachay nain kaam to acha kiya hai’(the student has done good work). If you have difficulty saying no to a long-time associate or former boss, in whose tenure you earned a promotion, you end up writing ‘A’ on the grade sheet much against your inclination. This is how the system works.

Efforts can be made to introduce systems that would increase the focus on thesis and prevent such manipulation. However, without the public sector work culture undergoing a thorough change, success seems far-fetched. Our best bet then is to have larger coursework, maybe of at least 40 CRH, till at least such time we observe significant improvement in the quality of theses produced.

Still, there are some good students, good supervisors and good theses, but they are the exception. PhD programmes should cater to the typical, not to exceptions. Rather than increasing enrolment to make PhD programmes financially viable, public funds should be used to induct only those who possess the talent to work towards a PhD.

Finally, Islamabad alone has at least six PhD programmes in economics with three to four students in each. Public universities would do better to pool faculty rather than operate in their individual domains.

The writer is a researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

Twitter: @khawaja_idrees

Published in Dawn September 19th, 2016