HEC — stormy times up ahead

May 25, 2019

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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

A CONFLICT at the Higher Education Commission in Islamabad is becoming increasingly rancorous. How it is ultimately resolved will profoundly impact the future shape and form of Pakistan’s universities. On the one side is Dr Tariq Banuri, HEC chairman for some months now. He took charge just as the economy tanked and education budgets dwindled. His task is unenviable.

On the other side is former (2002-2008) HEC chairman Dr Atta-ur-Rahman who, after being in the boondocks during the PML-N and PPP days, has managed to find favour again. Included in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s entourage to China last month, he is making his presence felt. Last month, in a letter addressed to the prime minister, Dr Rahman complains that his favorite HEC programmes are being axed. He sees this as a thinly veiled attempt to roll back what he considers his revolutionary achievements. The present HEC chairman indignantly denies the charges.

Normally one shouldn’t worry about personal tiffs — such things happen all the time everywhere. But because the outcome matters, one should actually pay close attention. Two radically different views on Pakistan’s higher education are in collision. Both have constituencies and it is unclear which will win.

The Banuri-Rahman tiff provides an opportunity to debate the future shape of our universities.

Banuri’s views are strongly influenced by his US education wherein a strong Bachelor’s level education is foundational. In a recent TV interview he outlined his flagship initiative — that of concentrating the bulk of HEC’s resources into widening and strengthening undergraduate teaching across Pakistan. Every eligible student, he says, should be able to obtain a four-year BS degree irrespective of income or region. Crucially, this should be sufficiently useful in itself and thus be regarded as a terminal degree rather than being just the first rung up the PhD ladder.

If Banuri prevails, funding would shift away from universities located in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad and head towards Pakistan’s less-developed areas. Creating teacher training academies and physical infrastructure development would be prioritised over funding research. He will find many university teachers opposing this.

Rahman’s approach is diametrically different. His metric of success is purely numerical — the number of published research papers, patents obtained, and PhDs produced locally. Spending priorities include the purchase and maintenance of scientific equipment, funding overseas visits, paying for meetings, and supporting project grants.

Appointed by Gen Musharraf as HEC chairman (2002-2008), fate handed Rahman a huge gift. The 911 attack on the Twin Towers was a bonanza for the HEC. After Pakistan joined America’s war on terror, Western governments rushed to pump in grants and loans for education. This, they thought, was a small price for staving off radicalisation. The HEC budget thereafter zoomed by 12 times (1,200 per cent!) over just three years — a record that no country has ever beaten. Any game could now be played and every wish fulfilled.

Things worked brilliantly in numerical terms. Provided with huge financial incentives, university professors began producing PhDs at an astonishing rate and publishing a mind-boggling number of ‘research’ papers. Several easily clocked up 20-40 papers a year or more. Every PhD student publishes prodigiously these days — towards the end of studentship some are credited with more papers than a full professor in the 1970s would have published over his lifetime.

As graphs hurtled upwards, the foreign press supported Rahman’s claim of having spawned an education revolution in an unlikely country. The World Bank wrote glowing reports and various university ranking organisations like Thomson-Reuters rushed to provide supportive numerical data. A few Pakistani universities were pushed into the top 500 global ranking. National pride swelled and there was backslapping all around.

But slowly — very slowly — uncomfortable facts dribbled out. Were more papers written because there was more research or, instead, because more time was spent upon cut-and-paste from the internet? Were these fecund researchers researching matters that were important either academically or for some applied purpose? Why weren’t international academics and profit-seeking businesses making use of papers and patents from Pakistan?

Dr Rahman’s home institution must especially be asked these questions. Supported by taxpayers with billions of rupees since the mid 1970s, the HEJ Institute in Karachi possesses the very latest machinery and equipment. Its website speaks of an impressive publication and patent record, as well as large numbers of PhDs awarded annually.

But, since HEJ is an applied science institution specialising in the chemistry of natural products, one expects much more. Papers and patents produced by the institute rightfully should have led to new drugs, manufacturing processes, and commercial applications. Logically the pharmaceutical industry should be its key beneficiary — as well as benefactor. India has many less well-funded chemistry institutes that contribute directly to the Indian economy.

Unable to find pointers on the HEJ official website about the institute’s industrial or commercial linkages, earlier this week I called up leaders of Pakistan’s pharmaceutical companies. Had they benefited from HEJ’s researches? Could they give me a tangible example? I drew a blank.

Before Dr Rahman writes yet another letter to the prime-minister demanding that scientific research be prioritised over college-level teaching, he might want to ask his institute’s staff to redo the website. It must detail specific applications of HEJ research over the last 30-40 years and tell what part of its operating expenses were earned through service to industry. If this cannot be done then his repeating internet memes such as ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘technology incubators’ will ring hollow.

No one doubts the centrality of research in the Western university system. The faculties at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc. have jobs because of their outstanding research. Numbers of publications don’t matter, the results do. In these top places teaching is considered secondary to research — which students sometimes don’t like but tolerate. However the system rests upon the bedrock of a solid undergraduate teaching programme — one which Pakistan entirely lacks.

To conclude: the Banuri-Rahman dispute must be seized as an opportunity for a wider discussion on what ails Pakistan’s university system and how to fix it. For this our professors need to break their self-imposed silence, set aside petty calculations of personal loss and gain, and forthrightly support what is good for the country.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2019