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The road to Knowledge Economy

February 08, 2019

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Illustrations: Sidra Jangda
Illustrations: Sidra Jangda

WHY is it that when you are told by a young person that he or she intends to pursue ‘higher education’, you immediately enquire to which foreign institution they are applying? It is rare that you visualise a young Pakistani man or woman acquiring ‘higher education’ from a Pakistani university. Employers are mostly impressed when they see a foreign qualification on an applicant’s CV and are more inclined to appointing the person rather than someone who has obtained a high qualification from a local university.

Even if it is a local institution, it should belong to the elite list. My daughter, after she did her Masters in International Relations from the public-sector university in Karachi, was offered a lesser salary by a leading newspaper than appointees at the same level from an elite private-sector university in Lahore. The employers almost doubled her salary when she returned two years later after having won a Fulbright scholarship and acquired a Masters from the US. Interesting, right?

Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had emphasised the importance of education, saying that he no doubt that the future of Pakistan would greatly depend upon the type of education “we give to our children”, and the way in which “we bring them up as future citizens of Pakistan”. He had reminded the nation that it had to compete with the world which was moving very fast.

It seems that over the past 70 years, the nation has not paid much heed to the observations of the Quaid.

Pakistan may have much to be proud of in quantitative terms as far as universities and graduates are concerned, but when it comes to quality, one really has to think again.

It is true that at the time of Partition in 1947, there was only one institution of higher learning in Pakistan – the Punjab University – and today there are over 200 universities in the country. However, what progress has Pakistan made on the educational front in terms of quality education at all levels and on the higher education front in particular? The national literacy rate continues to hover at a dismal 60 per cent, as claimed by the government, while the situation at the higher levels of learning is even worse.

Pakistan does well in quantitative terms. With a population of over 200 million people, it produces about 445,000 university graduates and 10,000 Computer Science graduates every year. The figure is growing with the growing population. The rising enrollment in Pakistani universities is making a lot of headway. On the human capital front, Pakistan boasts a population that is predominantly young.

According to a National Human Development Report of the UNDP, Pakistan has the largest population of young people. It is currently one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in the South Asian region. The report says that 64 per cent of the country’s total population is below the age of 30, while 29 per cent is between the ages of 15-29 years.

But this does not mean that Pakistan’s young population is well-served in terms of quality educational facilities across the spectrum. With one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, Pakistan also has the second largest out-of-school population; roughly 5.1 million children.

The country lags far behind other countries in the region and across the world in terms of higher education. India, with a population of over 1.3 billion, is said to have about 800 universities, Lebanon, with a population of around six million, has 32 universities, Turkey (population: 82 million) has 183 universities, while Australia (population: 25 million) has 43 institutions of university level.

Pakistan may have much to be proud of in terms of the number of institutions of higher learning that it has or the number of graduates that it churns out every year, but in qualitative terms, there is nothing much to be proud of. There was a time when students from many countries used to come to Pakistan to gain higher education, and degrees from Pakistan’s institutions of higher learning were readily accepted by overseas employers. The situation has gradually retrograded.

Except for scholarships for which outstanding Pakistani students qualify, there are hardly any overseas institutions of higher learning where applicants from Pakistan are readily welcomed. The rich Pakistanis who pay high fees at leading overseas educational institutions so that their offspring can obtain degrees are few in number and, in any event, the foreign institutions concerned are driven more by commercial considerations than anything else in accepting rich, high fee-paying students.

Higher education in Pakistan has been the domain of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) since 2002, an organisation preceded by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Universities in Pakistan were formerly accredited by the UGC which was established in 1947. Then, in the early 2000s, Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman was asked to set up the HEC and he was made its first Chairman. Major advancements in the higher education sector in Pakistan came about under him. These were described as a remarkable transformation in Pakistan’s higher education sector in an article in the world’s leading science journal, Nature, which described Prof. Rahman as a “force of nature”.

Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman is said to have resigned from the HEC in protest in 2008 due to the suspension of scholarships of thousands of students who were studying abroad. The decision was taken by the then government. The budget cuts led to the slowing down of the university development programmes and introduction of various cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.

When the HEC was established, new or revised reforms were introduced. While on the one hand, the Commission was made responsible for formulating higher education policies in Pakistan, it was also charged with ensuring quality to meet international standards as well as accrediting academic degrees, development of new institutions and uplift of the existing ones.

The HEC also facilitated the development of a higher educational system in the country with the main purpose of upgrading the universities and degree-awarding colleges to be focal points for higher education, research and development. For many years, the HEC played an important and leading role in building a knowledge-based economy by awarding hundreds of doctoral scholarships for education abroad.

The professor expressed the opinion in 2012 that higher education in Pakistan had achieved critical mass and reached a point of takeoff. He said that for this phenomenal growth to continue, it was important for the government and other stakeholders to support and further strengthen the HEC as a national institution and protect its autonomy. He said that if this momentum continued for another 10 years, Pakistan was certain to become a global player through a flourishing Knowledge Economy and a highly literate population.

However, under the 18th Amendment, which was promulgated in 2010, with the devolvement of education and many other subjects from the Federation to the provinces, the progress that had been made in just a few years came to a grinding halt. As things stand, the HEC in the provinces only seems to have turned into a degree-attestation institution.

The 18th Amendment enhances provincial autonomy and, among other subjects, the provinces have been made responsible for education in their respective areas. As a result, it was thought that a clear roadmap had been laid for the jurisdiction of the provinces. What has really happened, as far as the education sector is concerned, is that the provincial and federal higher education regulatory commissions are working parallel to each other since there has been no demarcation of their respective areas of authority.

The public sector has not made much headway as far as higher education is concerned. This apathy is due to lack of long-term policies, political interference and sectionalism. The government departments and ministries that oversee higher education just do not seem to care about their national responsibility and they are least interested in national development or the country’s future.

Like in many other areas, the sector of education seems to have been taken over by the private sector, which, in turn, operates with only commercial considerations in view and fleeces the public in all possible ways. This means that higher education in the real sense is simply out of reach of the people at large. While, ideally speaking, education is the basic right of every citizen and the state is duty-bound to fulfill this responsibility, those people who look towards the state are probably only day-dreaming.

Higher education entails research at universities, but it seems that both in public and private sectors, all that the so-called researchers are interested in are the funds. There is no check on how research is conducted on both scientific and social science subjects. Once a research study has been completed, the researchers concerned seem to be more interested in quick promotion. There are also no guidelines for publication of the study.

Appointments to faculties at institutions of higher learning are also not made on merit and recommendations, along with political influence, play a big role. There are so many cases where professors, even after they retire, continue to get extensions or they are re-hired on a contract basis.

All this serves as a dampener for young and energetic faculty members. One important aspect of national progress in the world today is the successful evolution of a Knowledge Economy. Pakistan has all the potential to attain progress in this area, but it appears that it is simply wasting the opportunity.