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An unwanted glut

February 08, 2019

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BACK in 2017, the then head of Higher Education Commission (HEC) had told pubic with a heavy heart that the country was facing a shortage of 36,000 PhDs in various subjects, and, as such, had asked the government to increase budget for higher education to meet such critical challenges in the sector. Around a year later, a large number of PhDs protested on the streets of Islamabad, asking the government to provide them employment! Can you beat that?

PhDs, as we know, are groomed to become senior academics, but Khyber Pakhutunkhwa (KP) education minister’s revelation turned out to be somewhat shocking when recently he disclosed that his department had received more than 700,000 applications for 17,000 vacant teaching posts in primary and secondary schools and, unfortunately, some of them were PhDs.

It is clear that the HEC bosses have absolutely no clue about managing the PhD programme. This is enough to prove that for our leaders, education has never even been a priority which is one big factor hindering our growth as a nation. If we look at the state of education in Pakistan, it becomes absolutely clear why we are lagging behind other nations and why so many of our people are deeply frustrated and alienated.

Quite contrary to the HEC report about the shortage of PhDs, the opportunities for PhDs are so limited that they are compelled to compete with simple graduates for jobs in schools and other organisations. A report reveals that 1,000 PhDs are still on the waiting list for HEC has not been able to provide jobs in universities. A jobless PhD during the protest said, “This shows a complete failure of the government’s policy. This is also because incompetent people are on key posts in HEC. Frankly speaking, the government has not been able to use PhD doctors. On the other hand, most jobs are only advertised for graduates, postgraduates and MPhil degree holders, and there are no jobs for fresh PhD holders. Most apply for jobs they are overqualified for.”

People with PhD degrees are applying for entry-level jobs. Is there a problem with the degrees or with the system?

The protestors, therefore, demanded that they be given permanent jobs in the departments they were initially posted in on one-year contracts. Besides, they demanded the establishment of a task force for accommodating PhD holders even in non-teaching institutions and for the task force to make recommendations on an urgent basis.

Though the HEC had started a good programme to produce PhD scholars in order to put on track the education sector in the country; it lacks proper planning and scheduling. The result therefore, is a glut of PhDs. To achieve the desired result of providing suitable jobs to PhDs in universities there is a need to produce PhDs keeping in view the requirement. The seemingly haphazard planning will result in disaster because a large number of PhDs are still struggling to make even both ends meet.

According to a report published in Dawn, “It is common knowledge, after all, that Pakistan has amongst the poorest educational indicators in the world. To quote just one report – Unesco’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report – Pakistan is ranked amongst the top three countries in the world that have the highest number of out-of-school children. The issue of quality comes later, yet presents an equally dismal picture – even when compared to neighbouring South Asian countries.”

Now is the time to take education rather seriously keeping in view the old saying that until we get quality in education, we won’t have good society. The HEC must revisit its priorities according to the requirement of the country and prepare both short-term and long-term plans to yield better results.

A protestor rightly said, “HEC had initiated local and international PhD programmes to increase the number of scholars to fulfill criteria of PhD staff members and improve quality of education. But the PhD scholars were still jobless after a huge investment on the programme such as Rs1.5 million per scholar within four years (local programme) and Rs3-4 million (international programme)”. Such kind of investments can be termed sheer wastage and a Third World country like ours just can’t afford it.

On the other hand, one fails to understand why for as long as seven years, more than 1,000 PhD-degree holders have been waiting to get registered in the country’s directory of the HEC, as without it, their degrees are irrelevant – some of them have been waiting since 2010 to get registered, while the rest since 2016. Still depressing is the fact is that ignoring the defined minimum criteria of at least five PhD faculty members for establishing a department in a university, the HEC has given no-objection certificates (NOCs) to many universities which do not fulfill the criteria.

Now if we talk about the quality of our PhDs, Pervez Hoodbhoy’s article titled ‘Enough PhDs, thank you’ is interesting. He writes, “Sadly, the presentations by most Pakistani PhDs were uninteresting, others were wrong. One was even laughably wrong. Probably the worst was by a professor who was not just a ‘doctor’ but a ‘professor doctor’. This terrible pomposity, borrowed from some German tradition, is now routinely augmented with ‘distinguished professor’, ‘national professor’ and what-not. Like cartoon generals who have won no wars but have medals stuck to oversized chests, Pakistan now has legions of highly paid ignoramus cartoon professors.”

Though the views expressed by Mr Hoobhoy may seem to be a bit harsh, it definitely says a lot about the lack of thoroughness in PhD research carried out by Pakistani researchers many of whom do not understand the true meaning of research, even after they have become ‘doctors’.

The information provided by the HEC chairman during a seminar conducted to discuss ‘higher education trends and prospects in Pakistan’ that over 110 PhD programmes across various public and private universities had been closed due to poor quality , to a great extend substantiate the views of Mr Hoodbhoy. He further added: “We will not tolerate corruption in academia even though the HEC is under a lot of pressure from those with influence in Pakistan.” This statement is enough to verify that a number of PhDs produced in Pakistan are not worthy of using the prefix of ‘Dr’ with their names.

Dr. Mukhtar also admitted that the HEC’s current focus is to improve the quality of education imparted in Pakistan while ensuring that academic research being done is of use to Pakistan and society at large. He admitted further: “There is no use of racing to get listed in rankings and journals with higher impact factor if there is no impact or practical outcome of the generated knowledge.”

Mr Hoodbhoy also says that no country becomes wealthy by printing a mountain of paper currency. And no university system becomes better by dishing out substandard PhD degrees, or by accepting vacuous research papers as valid. Instead, the way forward lies in adhering to strict ethical standards, cultivating excellence, rejecting mediocrity, and nurturing a spirit of inquiry and intellectual excitement.

The HEC has further worsened the situation by declaring the benefits to the supervising professors. The benefits include a monthly honorarium and bonuses for synopsis, publications, thesis defence etc. This has resulted in many advisors becoming greedy enough to enrol every Tom, Dick and Harry with them for the sake of this huge sum of money. In quest of earning more and more, they keep on enrolling more and more for PhD plan, resulting in deterioration in the standard.

To sum up, one may say that before enrolling any student for PhD programme, the supervising professor must sit with the candidate for counselling just to find out if the candidate is serious for taking up teaching as a profession or he wants to go for it just for the heck of it.

It goes without saying that only those who aim to join universities at higher level should be enrolled, and not those who join the programme for the sake of adding another degree to one’s resume. Seriously speaking, this is one of the ways to enrol serious students. There is definitely a need to restrict such a large number of people for if the objective is employment in the public or private sector at entry level, these qualifications are not required.