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Part-time PhD

July 07, 2017

FREAKONOMICS, Levitt and Dubner’s bestseller, explains that the reason why teachers at a US school would answer the multiple choice questions not answered by students in their exams was because their pay raise was linked to the students’ performance. The lesson: bad incentives produce, unintended, bad outcomes.

Low-quality PhDs produced by Pakistani universities result from the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) bad incentive structures with regard to rankings for universities and the faculty’s career progression.

Evening PhD programmes, which are rare worldwide, are run by many private universities in this country. Working men and women enrol in these to climb the career ladder. Obtaining a PhD degree is especially challenging with a full-time job and if the doctoral candidate has a family. To expect quality output from evening programmes is to expect too much.

HEC rankings are sending misleading signals.

Even otherwise, a typical PhD programme is financially unviable due to poor enrolment. But universities still run these programmes. Why? The quest for a higher slot on the HEC’s ranking of universities.

Better ranking boosts enrolment and therefore revenues. Features linked to PhD faculty and students dominate the ranking criteria. The ranking quest drives the decision to offer PhD programmes, even if these remain in the red.

Seventy-one per cent of the marks, according to the HEC ranking criteria, are allocated for the ‘quality of teaching’ and ‘research’. The former should be gauged by the content of lectures and the teachers’ ability to engage with the students. But no, quantity-based indicators are used eg the number of PhD faculty members and PhD students, and the awards won by faculty members (those with a PhD degree are more likely to win these). Research-based elements include patents and their commercialisation owed to the faculty, research and travel grants won by the faculty and papers published in research journals — a PhD faculty is likely to yield greater scores for their university.

It is good to have a PhD faculty but it has its own axe to grind (as excellently spelt out by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy in his column in this paper on July 1) — again because of the HEC’s incentive structure which links career progression to the number of research papers published. PhD students are a paper-making machine for supervisors: research papers based on students’ theses are typically co-authored with supervisors. Thus, just like the management, PhD programmes suits the faculty too. Then there is the political set-up that, unmindful of the scarcity of suitable university teachers, wants to have universities and their sub-campuses in every nook and corner of the country to get votes. The three may, unintentionally or otherwise, join hands to produce low-quality PhDs through programmes that don’t leave students with much time to work towards their degree.

Lums and IBA offer full-time PhD programmes offering monthly stipends of Rs45,000 to Rs50,000 to candidates to discourage them from accepting full-time employment. All private universities cannot afford such handsome stipends.

The state should step in to offer the needed stipend and let only a few good universities run (full-time) PhD programmes. The US-Pak­istan knowledge corridor, funded by the gover­nment here, envisages 10,000 Pakistanis working towards their PhD degrees in American universities over the next decade — a good ini­tiative. Allocating a fraction of the spending entailed for stipends here will furnish the money required. Given the scarcity, much more should be spent on importing teachers too.

An untapped financing avenue is through banks. The government should facilitate bank loans to be repaid in instalments once a student, after earning a degree, finds a job. Bankers’ concern about wilful default can be addressed by denying essentials like passports, driving licences, the right to buy and sell property etc to defaulters. With Nadra’s technology, tracing defaulters should not be difficult.

As HEC rankings give rise to bad incentives, a note on rankings is in order. It is the HEC’s quantity-based ranking structure that led it to rank the University of Punjab as number one and Lums as only the second best university in 2017. A look at market perceptions and placement of graduates not only turns this ranking on its head but also pushes the HEC’s number one way down the list. The question is: do HEC rankings guide or misguide admission seekers?

As the HEC’s rankings are sending misleading signals, those at the helm may consider putting the ranking exercise on hold until such time that criteria are developed that can yield credible rankings. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that once the HEC has determined the rankings, using whatever criteria, our decision-makers should answer one question: ‘would I like to send my near and dear ones to any of the universities that have been mechanically ranked from one to 10?’ Retain the universities for which the answer is ‘yes’, strike the rest off the list.

The writer is an economist.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2017