THERE is an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. This definitely is so in the case of the Higher Education Commission.

Recently, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, an eminent physicist, wrote an assessment of the HEC in this paper (Oct 21, 2008). Since he is passionate about the subject and well meaning, it is important to see if his observations are correct.

Let me state for the record and upfront that he admits that the HEC spearheaded “the first serious effort to rescue a failed university system.” Implication when the HEC began its work, the university system had already failed and needed resurrection.

Now to the presumed shortfalls of the HEC. Dr Hoodbhoy observes that the HEC's initiatives failed due to the absence of a system of checks and balances. While international organisations may have approved of the HEC's efforts, they failed to conduct independent investigations, relying instead “exclusively on what the HEC had to say about itself.” The selection method used for sending scholars abroad is alleged to have “amounted to a simple numeracy and literacy high-school-level test”.

Is he right? No. Consider the issue of checks and balances. The HEC is the first ministerial-level body to have fully implemented the SAP accounting system under which its entire financial operations have been computerised in conformity with international best-practice accounting standards. Not only does the HEC have internal auditors in addition to being audited by the federal government, but its accounts are also audited by independent commercial auditors whose report is presented to the board of governors of the HEC.

Now to the sloppiness of the international organisations, the journal Nature and the World Bank that swallowed hook, line and sinker the HEC's assessment of itself, it must be pointed out that Nature is regarded by the international scientific community as one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. The idea that Nature would rely simply on the HEC's own material to approve of the latter's efforts cannot really be taken seriously.

In the case of the World Bank, the Bank was actually asked by the Ministry of Finance to conduct an external performance audit of the work done by the HEC. The Bank sent a team containing a number of independent education and finance experts which came at least six times to Pakistan, met the HEC and university officials and also paid visits to various universities. All data provided by the HEC was double-checked by the Bank's experts. It would appear then that their report is based on their own findings and not what the HEC presumably fed them. Unless one were to have a rather low impression of the Bank's team.

Most recently, USAID reviewed the HEC's efforts and concluded that the HEC's “progress to date has been remarkable — indeed, in terms of value added, better than any other developing country this team has reviewed over the last two decades”.

Dr Hoodbhoy has also found dubious the selection mechanism used to send scholars overseas. This is how it works it involves a nationwide advertisement, a check that candidates meet minimum academic levels and standards, and a GRE-type test administered by the National Testing Service. Those candidates who emerge successful from this process are then interviewed by a team of international scholars from the country where the students are going and it is that team which finalises the merit list. The result every country to which the HEC has sent scholars has asked for more. Had our procedures been flawed, as Dr Hoodbhoy claims, that would not have been the case.

However, leaving aside these criticisms, there is also a fundamental error in Dr Hoodbhoy's article. He argues that the money spent by the HEC would have been better spent on colleges and vocational training institutes.

There are two problems here. One, the HEC does not have jurisdiction either over colleges (which are controlled by provincial governments) or over vocational training institutes. So, the HEC cannot be faulted for not spending money on either colleges or vocational training. Two, there is no reason to think that higher education must come at the cost of college education or vice versa. All levels must be tended to, but for its part the HEC's brief did not cover colleges and vocational institutes.

Dr Hoodbhoy is also unhappy over the tenure-track system of faculty appointments and the increased salaries paid to tenured professors. This is odd because he himself has worked hard to implement the tenure-track system at Quaid-i-Azam University. So far as the HEC is concerned, the tenure-track system of appointments is helping to attract qualified people towards academia and is crucial to the success of the PhD scholarship programme.

Publications by Pakistani scholars in the world's best scientific journals have increased by more than 400 per cent since the HEC initiated operations in 2002. Dr Hoodbhoy has earlier criticised this increase on the basis that the publications are of no value and have not been cited in other publications. This too is not correct. The dramatic increase in citations of Pakistani scientific work led ScienceWatch.com to declare Pakistan a “Rising Star” in five separate fields in its most recent issue.

Interestingly, one of the largest increases in publications came from Quaid-i-Azam University, especially its physics department. Dr Hoodbhoy works in that department, along with sev

en of the top 10 physics researchers in Pakistan, though he is not in the ranking (as ranked on the basis of internationally recognised criteria).

One of the biggest and most beneficial changes in Pakistan's higher education system has been the development by the HEC of an IT infrastructure. Every single university in Pakistan now has a computer network as well as access to a high-speed Internet connection along with access to one of the world's finest digital library systems. Many now also have access to video conferencing allowing them to interact with their colleagues worldwide in real time.

To take but one HEC programme more than 150 students awarded scholarships for PhD studies abroad have now returned to take up faculty positions in the country. The first person to return is now an assistant professor at Islamia College University, Peshawar. With more than 2,500 scholars set to return over the next five years, the future of higher education in Pakistan is brighter than ever. It is important, therefore, to look at the facts before criticising and negating the best efforts of others.n

The writer is executive director, Higher Education Commission, Islamabad.

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