THE exit of Dr Atta-ur-Rahman as chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) closes a unique period in Pakistan's education system.
His endless stories of success were accompanied by a flood of half-truths. But on the other hand Dr Rahman led the first serious effort to rescue a failed university system.
Had a system of checks and balances been in place, some of his bold steps could have worked. In any case, it is time to make a balance sheet. What do the pluses and minuses of his term add up to?
The negatives are huge. Numerous HEC projects violated common sense and, not surprisingly, turned into costly disasters. An egregious example is the $4.3bn HEC mega-project to establish nine new engineering universities staffed by hundreds of European professors. None were built although large, but unknown, amounts were spent.
Other prestige projects sucked up resources too. Many scientists, including myself, warned against buying certain fancy scientific equipment. But the opposition was futile and the whims of influential individuals prevailed. Expensive equipment was bought for which, years down the line, use still cannot be found.
The desire to show revolutionary progress inflicted long-term damage on our university system. For example, advised by Dr Rahman, Gen Musharraf declared that the annual production of PhD degree holders would be boosted from 150 per year to 1,500 per year. To support this, HEC incentive schemes encouraged PhD thesis supervisors, often of doubtful academic merit, to take on dozens of students each. Quality plummeted.
The proof is before us. One straightforward measure of a student's achievement level is his/her performance in an international examination known as the GRE subject test. In a notification issued in July 2008, the HEC declared the passing mark required of Pakistani PhD graduates, who could take the test even in their final year, to be 40 percentile.
This announcement is shocking. It officially acknowledges the inferiority of Pakistani degrees. A web search by the reader will show that entry-level students in graduate programmes at an average US university have GRE subject scores in the 70-75 percentile range. Many Chinese, Indian and Iranian entry-level students make it to the 90 percentile bracket in the same tests. On the other hand, Pakistani students, although allowed an additional four to five years' preparation time, can get a PhD with just 40 percentile. Worse, some university teachers, who are paid by the HEC an extra Rs5,000 per month for every PhD student enrolled under their name, are energetically lobbying to get the pass mark reduced still further.
Strong endorsements by the World Bank and the science journal Nature were deftly used by Dr Rahman to justify his schemes. Neither conducted independent investigations, nor were familiar with the local university culture. They relied exclusively on what the HEC had to say about itself. Their partisan praise eroded their credibility.
On the other hand, some of Dr Rahman's initiatives were fundamentally sound. And, to his credit, he did put his finger on some key problems in Pakistan's higher education sector.
It was a positive achievement to have increased access to higher education in a country where enrolment is abysmal. The number of public universities nearly doubled between 2002 and 2008. Unfortunately, there was no way to provide an adequate number of properly qualified teachers and as such
they were largely ineffective. One feels that similar resources spent on vocational or college education would have yielded greater dividends.
Sending students overseas for graduate work also goes to Dr Rahman's credit. Although the cost was enormous, around 3,000 were sent. Surely some good can come of it. But the flawed selection mechanism, which amounted to a simple numeracy and literacy high-school-level test, permitted large numbers of academically unprepared students to slip through into advanced graduate programmes. Perhaps only a quarter of those sent should actually have been sent.
Low salaries for university teachers needed raising, and Dr Rahman did that. Today a public university professor, provided he successfully finagles himself into the higher-paying (tenure track) position, can make as much as Rs350,000 per month. Unfortunately, the jump lacked proportion. If money grew on trees and bushes it would be wonderful to give such raises. But it is not right to pay university teachers huge salaries in a country where primary school teachers make a miserable Rs10,000 a month, and college lecturers only Rs25,000.
There are important lessons to learn from Pakistan's flawed experiment. Large financial inputs did not work, nor were good ideas without adequate implementation mechanisms sufficient. The record-setting increase in the budget for higher education — which shot up from Rs3.8bn in 2002 to Rs33.7bn in 2007 — did not remove basic weaknesses. Today, with the national economy almost bankrupt, more money is not an option. So what should be done to save higher education?
In the tiny space available here, only a glimpse can be given. Solutions are needed at three distinct levels — determining correct funding priorities, implementing approved plans responsibly and, most importantly, inducing changes in cultural values to promote and enable real learning.
Broadly speaking, higher education reform must now aim primarily at improving teaching quality. It was wrong to have concentrated so heavily on funding research, much of which is of dubious quality and utility. Good research is impossible without sound basics, and this will only be achieved if the next generation of researchers is exposed to knowledgeable teachers at the college and university level. Therefore, high priority should be assigned to better teacher-selection mechanisms, and to create large-scale, high-quality teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as trainers from across Pakistan and from our neighbouring countries.
The present neglect of public colleges must end. Even as many public universities were furiously wasting money, our colleges remained in desperate shape with dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and miserable laboratory and library facilities.
Many other changes are also needed. Major quality improvements could result from using properly standardised nationwide tests for students' admission into higher education institutions, teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials effectively, and designing standardised teaching laboratories that may be efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.
Higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if it is seen as the apex of a supporting pyramidal structure, and if solution strategies are pursued with intelligence and honesty. The new HEC head has a difficult task ahead. One hopes that he will have the dynamism and eloquence of Dr Rahman, but not the flaws.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.