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Undergraduate blues

February 09, 2018

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RECENTLY newspapers reported that Higher Education Commission (HEC) officials had stopped several Quaid-i-Azam University departments from admitting fresh student batches. The issue, even at these QAU departments, is that the latter do not have the minimum number of qualified faculty needed to run the programmes they were running. QAU is one of the highest-ranked universities in the country. They will, one can be certain, scramble and make up the deficiencies pointed out.

If the same audit lens was used to scrutinise programmes across the 200-odd universities and degree-awarding institutions of the country, a lot of other programmes and departments would have to be shut down as well. I am sure the HEC is not going to embark on any such endeavour soon. But should it not?

There is a crisis in higher education. Demand for higher education has expanded a lot and the supply side is scrambling to keep up. This is not unusual. It happened in school education as well. When demand for education, especially demand for better quality education, expanded and the public sector was not able, by design or default, to cater to the rise in demand, the private sector responded.

There is a crisis in higher education. Demand has vastly outstripped supply.

The rise of private schooling continues even today. But the response was very haphazard and it took decades before the shape of private sector engagement in school education became clear. Even today, though almost 40 to 50 per cent of enrolled students are estimated to go to private schools in the country, the expansion phase is not over. Notwithstanding the weak and rather counterproductive efforts to cap tuition fees, we are neither in a position to regulate the private sector nor are we, yet, in a position to know what the shape of school education will be in the decades to come.

Though we do not know the exact numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests that some 100,000-odd children take ‘O’-Level examinations in Pakistan every year. Some 40,000 or so of them go on to take ‘A’-Level examinations. These are clearly children who come from households who are able or willing to pay a fair amount for education.

There will be tens of thousands more from the matriculation stream who will also be in the same position, but even if we leave them aside for the moment and take just the numbers appearing for ‘O’- and/or ‘A’-Level examinations, the total number of places for undergraduates in decent to good quality programmes, and including medical or engineering school options, would not be more than 15,000 or so. Where are the other students supposed to go? Why has decent quality undergraduate education not expanded as private schools did?

Providing decent quality undergraduate education is more expensive and more heavily dependent on quality faculty than school education. This is definitely part of the answer. But the other part of the answer is to be found with the HEC itself. The HEC came into action around the same time that the demand for higher education started expanding. Being the main regulatory body, the HEC set up incentive structures in higher education. And, right from the beginning, it prioritised graduate- and doctoral-level programmes. Undergraduate education was ignored. Solid and decent quality four-year Bachelor’s programmes were what was needed.

But, in the quest to leapfrog and reach some dream world where Pakistani universities would be doing ‘cutting-edge’ research in every field, the HEC incentivised a) opening up Master’s and doctoral programmes, b) subsidised graduate education, c) offered overseas scholarships for graduate education, and d) brought in a tenure system for faculty that focused attention on research and graduate supervising. All of the above were at the cost of developing good-quality undergraduate programmes in the country.

The ‘market failure’ in undergraduate education that we see today is, hence, not just the result of lagging supply. It is a consequence of the HEC’s own policies. If universities do not focus on undergraduate education, it is because they are responding to very powerful incentives that have been set up by the HEC. If faculty is more concerned about publishing articles — mostly of poor quality — to ensure promotion and tenure than the quality of their teaching, they are responding to incentives that now seem to be embedded in the system.

I am on the recruitment committees and selection boards of a number of higher education institutions. My experience, over almost two decades of going through applicant files, is that a very strong predictor of the quality of a candidate is the quality of the undergraduate programme they have gone through. A strong undergraduate programme sets the foundation right and even a decent graduate programme afterwards can create an expert. But going the other way seems harder. A student from a weak undergraduate programme is less likely to be able to reach a good graduate programme (though it is not impossible), and is also less likely to benefit fully from it and develop into a strong academic.

But this is not surprising. It is at the undergraduate level that students learn the ‘how to learn’ part. They learn how to read literature, how to engage critically with it, how to play with and internalise ideas and how to present their arguments well. Graduate programmes tend to be more specialised and cannot provide the foundations mentioned. But if the foundation is weak, it is no surprise that a strong building is then rare to see.

How do we move forward? The start of any conversation is the realisation that there is a problem we have to address. The debate about higher education is not there yet: we do not realise how big a crisis we face in higher education. Even today, most HEC policies continue to prioritise graduate programmes and research. Undergraduate education will have to wait till we realise its importance.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2018