EDUCATION: FIXING HIGHER EDUCATION

Published October 1, 2023
Pakistan’s universities fall at the bottom of international rankings, which impacts students keen to learn and progress in their respective fields. — White Star
Pakistan’s universities fall at the bottom of international rankings, which impacts students keen to learn and progress in their respective fields. — White Star

Every year, the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) conducts a competitive examination, commonly known as CSS, for recruitment of officers at the starting stage in the civil services of Pakistan. The academic requirement for this examination is graduation from a university, duly recognised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). The examination is usually attempted by the brightest university graduates.

The result of the last CSS examination, announced on September 18, reflects the quality of graduates being produced by our higher educational institutions (HEIs). As per the FPSC, at least 20,000 candidates attempted the written part of the examination, of whom only 393 candidates, or 1.94 percent, passed.

The FPSC has been continually complaining about the falling standards of our education over several years. One of its reports states that many of the candidates were not even familiar with elementary mathematics. Then it states that many candidates “did not even know the direction of a simple compass, confusing north with south and east with west.” Almost all its reports complain about the absence of analytical skills among the candidates who mostly reproduce “crammed knowledge.”

It is not only the CSS examination where the poor quality of our graduates, produced by our HEIs, is visible. Their performance is even worse in international assessment tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) etc. No wonder that Pakistani HEIs are either absent from or in the bottom section of international rankings, such as the Times Higher Education (THE), the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

Many developing countries, which were far behind Pakistan decades ago, are now emerging as regional hubs of higher education, while our standards continue to fall. Where did it all go wrong and can something be done to repair the damage?

How did we get here and what can we do to improve the situation?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HIGHER EDUCATION

While ‘informal’ higher education has been there for centuries, its formal version, with a structured academic programme culminating in a degree or certificate, is a relatively recent phenomenon. “A great teacher like Socrates gave no diplomas,” wrote the mediaeval historian Charles Homer Haskins in his 1923 book The Rise of Universities. “If a modern student sat at his feet for three months, he would demand a certificate, something tangible and external to show for it.”

The modern universities were born in Europe during the Middle Ages. They reached India through British rule several centuries later, where the first three universities started working in 1858 at Calcutta, Bombay (now Mumbai), and Madras (now Chennai).

In due course, the British identified three “characteristic defects of the Indian intellect”, which were the “development of the memory out of all proportions to the other faculties of mind, the incapacity to observe and appreciate facts, and the taste for metaphysical and technical distinctions,” noted the Indian Educational Policy of 1904.

At Independence, present- day Pakistan inherited two universities: the University of Punjab at Lahore, established in 1882, and the University of Sindh, established at Karachi in April 1947. A few months later, on November 27, the Quaid-e-Azam shared his vision of education, stating: “There is [an] immediate and urgent need for giving scientific and technical education to our people in order to build up our future economic life, and to see that our people take to science, commerce, trade and, particularly, well-planned industries. We should not forget that we have to compete with the world, which is moving very fast in this direction.”

But with his passing away, this vision too was forgotten.

Pakistan’s universities fall at the bottom of international rankings, which impacts students keen to learn and progress in their respective fields | Photos White Star
Pakistan’s universities fall at the bottom of international rankings, which impacts students keen to learn and progress in their respective fields | Photos White Star

KICK-STARTS IN PAKISTAN

Things changed a little in the 1970s, during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s five-year rule, when the number of universities in Pakistan doubled. The budgetary allocations for education too witnessed a sharp rise, and the students’ enrolment in HEIs increased by 56 percent. It was also during this time that the University Grants Commission (UGC) was established, to regulate the affairs of HEIs at the federal level.

After a deep slumber, the ball started rolling again in the higher education sector and, by the early 2000s, a think-tank of Pakistani-Americans — known as the Boston Group — produced a detailed report and suggested a set of reforms.

Almost simultaneously, the government too constituted a 19-member ‘Taskforce on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan’ with Syed Babar Ali of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) and Dr Shams Kasim-Lakha of the Aga Khan University (AKU) jointly working as co-chairs. The funding came from the World Bank.

The taskforce concluded that Pakistan’s higher education system was unable to “provide the skills necessary, in the quantities necessary, to achieve the dual objectives of nation-building and global competitiveness.” The report, presented to President Pervez Musharraf in January 2002, suggested a comprehensive set of recommendations, which, had they been followed in true spirit, could have completely changed the higher education landscape in Pakistan.

ENTER THE HEC

However, the one recommendation that was promptly acted upon was the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), as its chairperson held the status of a federal minister, and there were quite a few aspirants for it. This new organisation was to play a leadership role for the higher education in the country and was entrusted with a very broad range of regulating, monitoring and evaluation functions and operations.

As fate would have it, the sector witnessed unprecedented cash inflows, in the wake of 9/11, as the world’s attention turned to Pakistan and its education system.

The last two decades of higher education in Pakistan can be termed as the ‘HEC era’, as the institution has played the most significant role in shaping the state of higher education we are in.

This era has witnessed a steadfast surge in the numbers: the number of universities increased from 59 in 2002 to 244 at present (145 public and 99 private); students’ enrolment rose from about a quarter of million to almost two million; the number of PhDs rose almost six times, and so on. It is also true that a lot of infrastructural development has taken place, in the shape of new campuses, buildings, laboratories, libraries etc.

But on the downside, it is also a reality that most of these new HEIs were substandard and never met the basics of international benchmarks. The exponential growth of HEIs in the name of “access”, when adequately qualified and competent faculty was in short supply all over the country, turned them into degree-awarding machines, breeding half-baked graduates.

On the other hand, the mushrooming of substandard universities also consumed a big chunk of national financial resources, which otherwise could have been used for promotion of research and teaching at quality HEIs. The result was that, even after spending billions of dollars, the creation of Pakistani versions of India’s prestigious IITs and IIMs (institutes of technology and management), essential for reaping the fruits of the ‘knowledge economy’, still remains a dream.

THE REFORM AGENDA

Any reform agenda should begin with the HEC itself. The organisation has been in operation for 21 years and has yet not been able to establish its image as a professional body. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs at the HEC that it has not been able to fill the pivotal position of its Executive Director, on a regular basis, since 2018.

Then, the HEIs are the building blocks of higher education. Unfortunately, in the absence of any input or effort on the part of the HEC, they are working on obsolete, in fact, degenerated ancient models. Due to the constraints of space, I will discuss only a few issues here.

Governance: Over the passage of time, the governance models of universities the world over have completely changed. There was a time when the “universities were run by their academic communities, but as mass higher education has taken root, as university research has become a critical element in national economies and as the demand for more accountability, both financial and in academic performance, has grown, pressure has mounted for a ‘modernisation’ of governance structures,” writes Michael Shattock in his book, International Trends in University Governance.

At present, some globally acclaimed models of HEI governance are the so-called Humboldtian model (operational in Germany, Norway and Finland), the Napoleonic model (France and Italy), the Japanese model, the Chinese model, or the historic ones of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.

The basic premise of all these models is the separation of the functions of governance and management. The governing bodies formulate policies, set targets, and fix timelines to achieve them. The buck is then passed on to the management to implement them, which reports back to the governing bodies with the implementation status. The governing bodies don’t manage but hold the management accountable.

This is the same model that works well in other sectors too. In Shattock’s words: “Governance is [as]… important in universities… as it is in the wider world of commerce and banking.”

However, in our HEIs’ outdated model, both governance and management functions are entrusted to the same bodies. In a mockery of the system, the governing bodies, such as the Syndicate and the Senate in our HEIs, formulate policies, set targets, fix timelines, and then assume the role of management, to implement — finally reporting to themselves about their performance and accountability.

If that were not bad enough, these bodies are mostly comprised of the employees of their HEIs, which creates a clear case of conflict of interest.

Financial Sustainability: Presently, the biggest source of funding for our public-sector HEIs are the grants released by the federal government through the HEC, with a component coming from the provincial governments. The HEIs’ own contributions are mostly smaller, making them dependent on the government.

Ideally, the government should enhance its spending on education, with corresponding increases in allocations for higher education, as is being done by most of the countries in the world. Nevertheless, in addition to government funding, the HEIs need to supplement their share, on the pattern of other countries, such as China, Turkey and Malaysia.

This could be done by rationalising the fees structure in public sector HEIs, and then subsidising it for the poor — not for everyone, as is currently the practice. It would be a good idea if the fee bill also mentions the amount of subsidy provided by the state, so as to inform the students of the true worth of their subsidised academic programme.

Another area in the realm of financial sustainability that requires due attention is ensuring extreme prudence and transparency in the utilisation of financial resources. Both these commodities are in short supply at present.

Institutional Autonomy: The last few decades have seen the shrinking of institutional autonomy in the higher education sector, both at the level of the HEC as well as at HEIs. During this period, most of the powers to govern and manage the institutions have been progressively usurped by the political and bureaucratic classes, shifting the power centres outside the institutional domains. This has been happening despite the fact that the global trend has been towards granting HEIs more autonomy.

In addition, there are, of course, many other issues in higher education in Pakistan, such as the politicisation of the faculty, staff and students, the appointment of inappropriate persons as HEIs leaders, low quality research, outdated curricula, and the inefficient use of available resources etc.

But I believe they are ‘symptomatic’ in nature and are a manifestation of the diseases we have just discussed. If we correct the governance in HEC and HEIs, bring financial sustainability and ensure institutional autonomy, they all should eventually disappear.

Let’s conclude with the notion that a vibrant and quality-oriented higher education holds the key to several of Pakistan’s economic and social problems. Countries such as China, Turkey and Malaysia are now reaping the fruits of the initiatives taken by them decades ago.

Many countries, even in Africa and the Middle East, which were far behind us a few decades ago, are fast on their way to emerge as new regional hubs of higher education. It would be a tragedy if we allowed this great source of economic and social development to slip away from us.

The writer has been associated with education for over three decades and has served as a university vice-chancellor for over eight years. He can be reached at drshaikhma@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2023

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