Exodus from academia

February 10, 2019


The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant.
The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant.

THERE is a crisis brewing in Pakistan’s universities. Over the last two decades, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was able to gradually effect positive changes in the academic culture. These were not the result of any decrees handed down by HEC’s bureaucracy, but produced by slow osmosis of academic cultures from around the world that young, incoming faculty members were a part of during their doctoral studies.

Traditionally, this faculty was sourced from countries the academia of whom was clearly more developed than ours. Considering that it takes four to six years and costs at least $100,000 to fund a single PhD, the gains we achieved over these years were hard fought. I will not offer figures of how many more papers are being published from Pakistani universities as proof of that, because that measure is controversial by itself — as many others have lamented.

What I would rather like to consider is the growing number of Pakistani students who, unable to fund their education abroad, are capitalising on the improved reputation built by their predecessors to secure funding from sources outside Pakistan. This new faculty also brought with it expertise in navigating the scholarship search and application process, programme search, admissions’ application and visa application processes that today’s students aspiring to study abroad are benefiting from.

Increased spending on higher education by countries that missed the industrial revolution, but are now trying to catch the bus for the knowledge economy, is a secular global trend. Across the Arabian Sea, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have ramped up spending on higher education and are opening local campuses of foreign universities and new universities of their own. Their growing populations mean it is becoming increasingly challenging for their governments to continue supporting citizens with jobs and/ or other means of livelihood.

In Pakistan, faculty has not seen pay raises in the last five years.

To that end, in 2016 Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s largest member country, launched its Vision 2030 programme. Amongst its targets was to lower unemployment from 11.6 per cent to 7pc, increase SME contribution to GDP from 20pc to 35pc, increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22pc to 30pc, and increase the private sector’s contribution from 40pc to 65pc of GDP, all by the year 2030. Recent years have also seen roll-outs of “Saudisation” programmes in various sectors of the economy. The recent drop in oil prices saw a brief pause in education spending, but that has picked up again since. The sudden surge in the number of new universities means a corresponding surge in the number of unfilled faculty positions.

At the same time, in Pakistan, faculty has not seen pay raises in the last five years. In fact, their benefits are being cut, more appointments are being made on contractual basis and promotion criteria are being tightened. A recent survey conducted concerning faculty at the National University for Sciences and Technology showed that almost all faculty members are unable to afford housing in the city and have to commute from afar. Misconceptions also abound. In the words of an administrator of one of our country’s most prestigious universities, “these faculty members are not interested in making money. They just want to be left alone to do their research and publish”.

Thus, current conditions in Pakistan and the GCC have set up the perfect push-pull dynamic: Pakistani faculty, trained at great expense on the Pakistan government’s dime, on completing their five-year commitment to work in Pakistan, are exiting in large numbers, and being absorbed by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. One particular department has hired so many faculty members from NUST that it is jokingly referred to as a sub-campus of the university.

This exodus from Pakistani universities is costing the government its large investment in university faculty since the inception of the HEC. Instead of competing for its experienced faculty and paying them their worth, many universities have elected one of two routes: 1) creating procedural hurdles for departing faculty, causing further aggrievement, or 2) replacing departing faculty with newly returning faculty at a cheaper rate.

Most of the newly returning PhDs available to universities for hire are from China and other countries that the HEC considers “cheaper” destinations and the difference between the outgoing and incoming crop of PhDs is so stark that officials at a leading university in hiring roles have expressed this frustration. There is a scramble to hire “US-UK PhDs” willing to work on barely livable wages, with no job security or retirement benefits. The fallout from the government keeping both its eyes firmly shut on this matter will be felt for years. More faculty is leaving every day, each setting back the progress our academic sector has made these last few years.

Near-ubiquitous global internet connectivity and cheaper air travel have enabled highly skilled workers to take advantage of opportunities around the globe without being too out of touch with families and friends back home. A Google search for ‘global talent war’ and ‘globally mobile highly skilled migrants’ yields thousands of articles and reports on this phenomenon. Countries are competing over wooing the best global talent, educated and trained at other countries’ taxpayer expenses. The Pakistani government is blind to this trend and, if the past is a prologue, will only wake up to it when it is too late.

Over the last year, I had the opportunity to talk to several emigrated faculty members. Almost all of them held PhDs from the US or EU countries. Their motivations for leaving all boiled down to this: after paying house/ apartment rent, private school fees for one or two children, running expenses of a car and groceries, month after month there is nothing left. There are no retirement benefits, no subsidised housing societies, and in most cases no medical insurance to speak of. The prescription for stemming the poaching of our best talent is banal if it were not so obvious: pay workers a competitive wage, or risk a backslide and lose the investments we have made in universities and research that will enable human development for coming decades.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant.


Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2019