UNIVERSITIES, the 200 or so registered and formal ones, and many more institutions working as colleges, affiliated institutions and/or as coaching centres, find it hard to hire qualified and competent faculty. This is true of even the best of them. On the flip side, there are unemployed PhD holders protesting outside the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and sometimes even outside the residence of the prime minister.
Though exact numbers are not available, protestors say some 600-800 people with PhDs are unemployed. Only 150-odd have registered on the HEC portal for unemployed PhD holders. Whatever the number, there are hundreds of people with PhDs who are not employed, while universities are desperately looking for faculty. If this is not a case of missing markets and information asymmetry (candidates do not know where the jobs are; universities are not advertising and thus unable to reach these candidates) — and clearly it is not, as jobs are well advertised and the scholars’ plight is well known now — it must be a case of mismatch. The mismatch can be due to different reasons.
Do scholars have degrees in disciplines or sub-disciplines that are not in demand? Are university needs different than what these PhD holders are offering? If there is an area mismatch, clearly excess demand and excess supply can coexist in such a situation. But this does not seem to be the case. Dissertations are narrow — as they should be — but the broader areas of specialisation of most scholars seem to be fairly mainstream.
Another reason for the mismatch could be due to differences between the perception and reality of skill levels. Do universities feel these scholars are not good enough? Do they think their skills are too narrow and/or not deep enough to turn them into good teachers and researchers?
The HEC is often criticised for focusing on the quantity rather than quality of programmes.
There has been, over the last decade and a half, persistent criticism of how the HEC has focused a lot on increasing the number of PhDs in Pakistan by concentrating on quantity and, many say, ignoring issues of quality. The HEC has employed two ways of increasing the number of PhDs in Pakistan. They have given a lot of scholarships to young Pakistanis to go abroad for their PhD training, and have also encouraged, persuaded, incentivised and cajoled Pakistani universities to start PhD programmes in any discipline in which they could get a certain number of PhD faculty. There are concerns — about quality — on both counts.
PhD programmes (in general) do not teach students how to be effective teachers and some do not even teach students how to be good scholars. They make them learn essential skills, usually quite narrow and limited to the area they are doing their dissertation in, and produce a good enough dissertation — but this is scant preparation for being a faculty member. Most doctoral candidates, therefore, need good mentorship programmes to develop into good teachers and scholars. Most good universities have such mentorship programmes. We in Pakistan do not.
Many Pakistani universities have started PhD programmes, on the basis of the HEC’s encouragement and a minimum number of PhD faculty, without due care about quality. Holders with PhDs from Pakistani universities, in general, will stand at a disadvantage. It is not the case that there are no bright and well-trained students in that group (there are bound to be a certain number), but the majority will be of those who could not go abroad for their doctorates. And given the (again, generally) weak training they have received from local universities, it is no wonder they are not strong candidates for jobs in universities.
Similarly, there is significant variety, in terms of quality, in foreign universities as well. Those who have gone to subpar universities and programmes, and had weak undergraduate and master’s level training in Pakistan prior to going abroad, have trouble signalling their quality and getting jobs. Again, there will be some strong candidates in the group — but the general impression, if one is coming from a below average university/programme, will be poor.
So we have a stock and flow problem. The flow problem is that, since the HEC is still giving scholarships for PhDs, they need to ensure better selection of candidates and universities/programmes. They need to rethink their eligibility criteria and tests and they should have stronger controls over the universities/programmes students go to. Since these students are utilising public funding, the HEC should have a say in approving the universities/programmes they end up in. This should be true for foreign as well as domestic programmes.
The push to open more PhD programmes in Pakistani universities should be carefully reviewed. As for programmes that are already in operation, there should be strong quality checks in place, as well as a programme to help universities improve their PhD programmes in case they do not meet quality standards.
The stock issue is distinct. For scholars who already have PhDs from programmes (domestic or foreign) that were approved by the HEC, the commission should encourage or seed mentoring, skills development, and postdoctoral programmes. Just having a job portal is not enough, as the issue is not one of missing markets or information asymmetry — it is about the perception or reality of quality.
It is a tremendous travesty — and a waste of resources, human and capital — if students go through 20-plus years of education, end up with a PhD and still cannot find jobs when universities are desperate for faculty. HEC policies of the last decade or so have to take substantial blame for this. In an effort to increase numbers, compromises on quality have been substantial. This needs to be remedied. For existing scholars, we might have to offer skills development programmes. For future scholars, the quality of domestic and foreign PhD programmes on offer has to be monitored much more strictly.
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, April 19th, 2019