Earlier this month, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote an article describing the mechanisms of what he termed Pakistan's professor mafia and the various "academic crimes" that this racket commits to the detriment of Pakistan's higher education system.
To demonstrate the dysfunctionalities of Pakistani universities, Professor Hoodbhoy gave a startling example: at the Faculty of Management Sciences at the International Islamic University, a "world record of sorts was set last month" when five PhD degrees on various topics were awarded under a single supervisor who received his doctorate merely five years prior.
Professor Hoodbhoy went on to explain how the country's higher education system legitimises and gives room to such instances, analysing in detail the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) PhD-related policies which are to blame for the academic disrepair.
"A major setback happened in 2002," he says, "when, in a bid to boost research and production of PhD degrees, the Higher Education Commission hooked the promotion, pay, and perks of university teachers to the number of research papers they published."
This gave rise to the professor mafia, which works as follows: a good friend of mine sitting in a university will publish my papers along with my students’ in their journal and I shall return the favour. This trading of favours is the beginning of the racket. The more publications the members of the mafia have to their name, the easier it is for them to get the attendant perks and benefits.
In this article, I wish to offer what I believe can be solid solutions to the issues highlighted by Professor Hoodbhoy.
To start off, the HEC should raise the bar and make it mandatory for PhD scholars to publish at least one conference paper at a reputable international conference and one journal paper in ISI indexed and impact factor journals.
What qualifies as a publication also needs to be changed. A paper presented at a high-quality conference and in an impact factor journal with cited works of reputable researchers should be defined as a publication. Any other definition must be discarded.
This will ensure quality and set a high standard by which someone's contributions are measured. A researcher with 50 publications in dubious, local journals will not have contributed nearly as significantly and will rank lower than their counterpart with even a single publication at a renowned conference/journal with quality citations.
If this step is taken, I'm sure Professor Hoodbhoy would agree that the 'world records' that Pakistani universities are proud of would be set by only the most extraordinary and experienced researchers, while the mafia will be dealt a harsh blow.
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Having said that, I don't see a problem with incentivising publications and basing promotions on them. Such mechanisms for motivation can remain. However, it should only happen once quality of research is made top priority.
Secondly, professors should be tasked with bringing in funding on their own through collaborations with various agencies and institutions in different industries and sectors. This is something that's of equal importance but is missing in Pakistan.
This will help link academic research to concrete development goals and projects, social programmes, and private or public sector policies and initiatives. As a result, research will become more useful and will contribute to the betterment of the country. It will also pop the bubble the HEC has created thanks to its myopia.
The HEC can assist by funding different private and public sector institutions that have well-defined projects for which they need researchers' help. It should be left to these institutions to decide who is the most competent researcher to hire.
ICT R&D funds, Plan9 and Institute of Research Promotion are setting excellent trends in the technology domain. New organisations should be formed and tasked with distributing funds in the social sector as well.
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Now, as far as teaching is concerned, whether or not instruction and research can go hand in hand is a subject of widespread debate. A good teacher might not necessarily be a good researcher and vice versa.
For example, teaching is not incentivised in North America as it used to be, with the focus now being on research. How much funding a professor can bring in from the outside and how many papers and books they publish determines the prestige of a university. A large number of courses, especially at the undergraduate level, are taught by part-time professors, which is having a negative effect on North American universities.
The HEC has also gone down the same route of 'publish or perish' and the consequences of imitating North America are there for all to see.
Focus on churning out research papers means that serious issues have been overlooked, such as the need for better monetary incentives for teaching, developing subject specialists, identifying individual faculty weaknesses and ensuring their development.
Pakistani universities need to work on teaching, pure research and applied research, and entrepreneurship. Fixating on only one of these aspects will end up limiting the impact and usefulness of our universities, which would be a disservice to education.
Are you an educationist who would like to offer solutions to the problems facing the Pakistani education system? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org