Pakistani government is taking continuous efforts to improve higher education system in the country. This is evident from the excessive funding for higher education in terms of building new universities, providing scholarships, improving existing infrastructure of the universities, research grants, exempting fees, and even providing laptops to the students with EVO connections for no noteworthy performance. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) Pakistan always comes up with high claims to have revolutionised the higher education system in Pakistan. However, the international statistics depict a different picture. Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), an internationally known British ranking agency, has placed Pakistan at the bottom of its 2016 list of higher education system ranking.
While the government has spent billions over the last one decade to improve the higher education system in the country, it appears that all the efforts are unproductive and not in the right direction. Let alone a slight progress in higher education, we are hitting bottom in the international rankings.
The QS higher education system strength ranking compares a country’s performance in four areas: (i) overall national system strength based on the number of institutions ranked 700 or above in the world, (ii) access to the top-ranked international institutions, (iii) performance of the country’s top-ranked institution within the global ranking, and (iv) the impact of national investment in higher education.
With respect to these four indicators of higher education performance in a country, United States is ranked at top with a score of 100 out of 100, United Kingdom scores 98.5 to receive second spot, India is ranked at 24 with a score of 60.9, whereas Pakistan has been ranked at 50 (the last) with an embarrassing score of 9.2.
Only six Pakistani universities have made it to QS ranking (500 – 800) with respect to the indicators of academic reputation, reputation in job market, student-to-faculty ratio, research impact, international faculty and international students. This ranking is not bad, but if we consider the vast amount of investment on higher education over the last one decade, we must expect at least one Pakistani university in top 500 universities in the world. Whereas, India has nine universities in top 500 universities in QS ranking despite of no ground-breaking initiatives taken by them as Pakistan did.
There was a time when Pakistan’s revolutionary and unprecedented steps to improve higher education sector even threatened India. In 2006, Indian scientific advisory council apprised the government of the rapid strides that Pakistan was making in the higher education sector, stating that “Pakistan may soon join China in giving India serious competition in science”. However, considering the disconcerting plight of Pakistan’s higher education system in international rankings, it now seems that India has not to worry any more.
It is quite palpable that Pakistan did not invest in the right direction with impeccable planning. The years-long efforts to uplift the higher education standard in the country had to turn out less productive as they lacked proper planning, foresight and inaccurate prioritisation of the steps. Despite of investing on the basic education which always needed immediate attention, Pakistan blindly spent only on higher education. HEC’s ever-growing concern to produce more and more PhDs, disregarding the quality, has led to this dismal standard of higher education. Despite of being the regulating authority of all the universities in the country, HEC turned its eyes from the deteriorating standard of education in universities, flawed criteria of admissions in Masters, MPhil and PhD programs, and sub-standard outcome of research.
Instead of improving the existing academic infrastructure of the institutions and regularly revising academic policies as per international standards, we engaged in providing futile and luxurious incentives such as distributing free laptops to students with licensed operating system, application software and internet connection. All you need to do to get a free laptop with all accessories is to get enrolled in a Master, MPhil or PhD program, get the fee reimbursed, grab the laptop and say good-bye to the university. You will end up with a free laptop which you can even sell in the market when you get bored of it. Till date, over 100,000 laptops have been distributed all over the country under prime minister’s laptop scheme. The HEC has just entered in the second phase of distributing 100,000 more laptops. The same amount could well have been spent on improving the pathetic condition of basic education in the country and improving the overall infrastructure of higher education.
While the HEC is committed to produce more PhDs by uninterrupted provision of scholarships, even the provincial governments have come forward to announce PhD scholarships, as if this is the sole way to elevate the standard of education in the country. In fact, we never needed such an increasing number of PhDs who have little to no impact on the higher education and scientific progress of the country. All we need to do is to take the following initiatives on emergency basis.
(i) Gradually reducing the foreign scholarships and spending the same amount on the existing academic infrastructure and indigenous scholarships.
(ii) Revisiting the criteria of enrollment in Masters, MPhil and PhD programs. Especially, the enrollment in PhD programs entails strict scrutiny of a candidate’s ability to conduct quality research.
(iii) Putting an end to all the mediocre schemes such as distribution of free laptops for little or no performance. Being a country where majority of people are living below the poverty line, we cannot afford such luxuries. We need to prioritise our efforts to produce fruitful results.
(iv) HEC should formulate strict policies to control the quality of academics in higher education institutes. HEC did establish quality enhancement cells in all the universities, but their contribution to enhance or ensure the academic quality is next to nil.
(v) Instead of ranking universities on weak criterion and ignoring the essential indicators, HEC must follow international standards. This is the very reason HEC’s current report of universities ranking was heavily criticised by experts.
(vi) HEC must strengthen research culture in academic institutions by envisaging appropriate policies. The current policies merely emphasise on producing research quantity, paying little or no emphasis on quality.
Along with the above-mentioned steps to improve the quality of higher education, it is indispensable to pay immediate attention on the plight of basic education in the country. Being victim of a lethargic basic education system, there are just a few who can excel in higher education and only a miracle can get us a good ranking on international level.