The poor scope of higher education in Naya Pakistan

Students and teachers are being talked about in policies, but are never part of the conversation
Published August 29, 2019

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) completed its one year in government on 18 August, 2019. This article presents part two of a systematic evaluation of the party’s education policy and performance so far, focusing on higher education. You can read the first part on primary and secondary education here.

In his commencement speech in 1999 at the American University in Cairo, Edward Said asked an important question to his captivated audience: “Can the university survive as a real university if its governance and teaching mission become the objects of scrutiny and direct interference, not of its teachers, but of powers outside the university?”

Twenty years on, an answer to this question can be found in the state of higher education in Pakistan that has suffered from political interference for decades, where any form of critical engagement and political activism has been criminalised if not violently crushed, as seen in the horrific murder of Mashal Khan. Discrimination against ethnic minorities has become a norm. Creativity is only valued through short-sighted quantifiable measures and higher learning is replaced by indoctrination.

In evaluating the PTI’s performance on higher education, one needs to be aware of the existing context in the country. While Said’s ideal of a real independent university is nothing short of a fantasy especially in Pakistan today, the possibility of making the institution more egalitarian through strategic reforms has been completely compromised in this one year.

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Any possibility of reform has been weakened through unconscionable budget cuts to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in line with the austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund’s bailout package for Pakistan.

Pakistani students are the ones bearing the brunt of these budget cuts. Academic jobs have become more precarious. The fundamental debate about the meaning of universities as critical institutions of higher learning that should form the starting point of any strategy on higher education, especially in a Naya Pakistan, does not exist.

So what is the PTI’s policy on higher education? A comprehensible policy framework that specifically addresses higher education is yet to be drafted. The government in its annual plan is guided by the vision and goals of its 2018 election manifesto.

Therefore, the Annual Plan 2019-20 as drafted by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform that includes a section on higher education can be the best indicator of policy thinking and planning for higher education in Pakistan under the PTI. Whether the government follows through remains to be seen.

The manifesto

For the PTI, education is part of the three Es – employment and engagement being the remaining two – that were promised to young Pakistanis. Their vision is in line with a “human capital” approach, similar to Vision 2025 that had been drafted under the previous government.

The PTI's vision can be categorised under quality, financial support, national-international networks and technical and vocational skills.

Targeting quality: Focusing on research, the PTI aimed to incentivise research quality based on international benchmarks against quantity or volume of research. It aimed to remove political influence in the higher education sector by creating independent and transparent mechanisms for the selection of vice chancellors and senior administrators. It aimed to regulate university curriculum in order “to include compulsory courses on communication, reasoning, IT literacy as well as instruction in social sciences.”

Financial support: The PTI aimed to provide public scholarships. It planned to set up a national endowment fund for international universities providing opportunities for international and distance-learning in tertiary education.

National-international networks: It aimed to recruit foreign university graduates from Pakistan to teach and supervise research in local universities. It envisioned partnerships with international universities for the purpose of improving teaching and research quality. With the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it aimed to promote foreign placement of talented Pakistanis. Locally, the PTI also aimed to set up a national programme that could provide practical training to graduates in public and private organisations.

Technical and vocational education: The size and scope of skill development and vocational training programmes were to be doubled. Ten technical universities were to be established across Pakistan and existing ones were to be upgraded according to international standards. Public-private partnerships were proposed with foreign technical universities and providers to offer specialised, high-quality training. Vocational training programmes were to be expanded to provide high quality skills to post-secondary students while creating partnerships with local industries and foreign governments to seek employment for vocational and technical graduates.

In short, the PTI’s vision is in line with its emphasis on human capital focused on making university graduates competitive in the local and international market.

Higher education

The main focus of the annual plan for 2018-19 was increasing access to higher education, improving its quality and making academic research more relevant to "national needs."

In that time, the number of universities increased from 188 to 195, with enrolment at 1.6 million against the projected 1.9 million. The annual plan also highlights the achievement of Pakistani universities in relation to world ranking systems, the quantity of faculty publications and the approval of four new national centres related to the field of technology.

The plan for 2019-20 is to develop a tiered system of universities with Tier 1 focused on high quality local universities becoming “world class institutions through greater autonomy and additional financial support.” Tier 2 will include the remaining universities, while colleges are supposed to be part of Tier 3. Such a three-tiered system was suggested by the HEC in 2017 as well and is part of their Vision 2025.

A task force on “technology driven knowledge development” has also been established. The task force will continue to work under the leadership of the prime minister proposing interventions to promote the knowledge economy. In fact, the plan focuses a great deal on emerging and new technologies, in order to embrace what it calls “the 4th Industrial revolution.” The establishment of new universities will only be undertaken after a needs assessment.

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The HEC will further ensure that funds are invested towards existing universities, with a fully functioning quality enhancement cell. The plan also proposes setting up a programme, called the Assistance Governance and Access in Higher Education for Quality Enhancement, with the assistance of the World Bank to improve academic excellence through support to students and researchers across universities and affiliated colleges.

The plan also emphasises the importance of balancing investment in both technology and the arts and humanities and proposes the establishment of a social science arm under the Pakistan Academy of Sciences. Yet, there is an overwhelming emphasis on technological skills and education.

Universities are also encouraged to generate resources and collaborate locally and globally to reduce dependence on public funds. Under the human resource development scheme, funds have been allocated for local and foreign scholarships, while also emphasising on research and development for universities across the country.

The budget under the Public Sector Development Program 2019-20 for the HEC is Rs28,646.882 million, which includes Rs25,777.706 million for ongoing and Rs2,869.176 million for new schemes. The task force on technology driven knowledge development will be provided Rs4.297 billion for its projects.

The implementation reality

Unless there is a u-turn plan, the annual plan provides a good indicator of how this government has been thinking about higher education. There are contradictions that need to be carefully examined.

A lot has already been written about the budget cuts that could lead to nearly 10-15 per cent cuts in the recurrent expenditure of the HEC and up to 50pc in development expenditures. The HEC’s chairman and vice chancellors of various universities across Pakistan have requested the government to review and rethink this budget. The students who hold the potential for Pakistan’s bright future and are at the centre of PTI’s vision have been protesting against these budget cuts, as have academics.

Universities have already been asked to re-evaluate priorities within their institutions and look for alternative sources of funds. Far from ensuring independence of universities, in a context where government universities are not well equipped for fund raising activities, such alternative sources of funds may further compromise the independence of these universities.

Universities will also be reprioritising the focus of their budget towards largely marketable subjects, which despite the disclaimer in the annual plan, could undermine the value of critical engagement through the arts, humanities, and in some cases, social sciences.

A three-tiered system as proposed in the annual plan is going to create greater inequality in access to quality higher education in a resource deprived sector, with massive budget cuts. There is a likelihood, given these cuts, that the government may rethink or delay such a system, which is necessary as it will undermine any plans for equality in quality education in this sector.

Another contradiction is this drive towards “world class” status while being “nationally relevant.” The idea of a ‘world class’ university as judged by external bodies, based on an external criteria that places little or no emphasis on the context within which these universities exist, questions the extent to which such a ranking system yields a fair assessment of universities across the world. The same holds true for rankings locally.

The need to compete with such universities compromises the importance of focusing on what is needed locally – investment in quality teaching across the sector, not confined to a specific tier.

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Research, while important, cannot be measured through the quantity of outputs. This is further problematic in the arts, humanities and social sciences where metrics for research output are being uniformly adopted by quality enhancement cells that are ill equipped to recognise the diversity in learning and knowledge across disciplines.

The focus on a ‘fourth Industrial Revolution’ also seems misguided for a country that still needs to strengthen its basic infrastructure of electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation, air pollution and the climate emergency. This is not to undermine the importance of technological innovation, but such strategies need to grow in accordance with the reality on the ground, not be the driving force of the entire strategy.

The HEC has had its set of problems as outlined elsewhere. The role of the provincial higher education commissions remains unresolved. Going back to Said’s question, the idea of a centralised body regulating universities is one that also comes with its own set of problems, but one that in the Pakistani context cannot be changed without a concrete alternative. But what one can take from Said’s question is his focus on teachers, and I would add students.

Teachers and students are the main stakeholders who need to be involved in decisions that affect them in universities. In what has been described in this article, students and teachers are being talked about in these policies, but are never part of the conversation (with the exception of a few regulars).

The difficulties both students and teachers face in colleges and universities, which includes the day to day bureaucracies and hierarchies that stand in the way of creativity, are not being addressed. The lived experiences of students that range from problems of sexual harassment, to lack of opportunities, to mental health issues are still taboo. In short, the experience of being a student rather than just another number in the university is never taken into account in any assessment of quality or learning.

One year on, the PTI has the opportunity to re-evaluate its approach to higher education, to reconsider the drastic budget cuts that will harm students and teachers and take them on board as it decides their future through its policies.

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