The sad dilemma of higher education and research in Pakistan

The human rights commission Pakistan in its recent report has stated that the higher education in the country is facing a crisis and has discussed the issue of transference of the higher education (HEC) to the provinces after the 18th amendment. The report further argued that it’s been more than 6 years, since the 18th amendment was passed in April 2010, but the transfer of power to the provincial has not taken place and has halted educational reforms in the country. The declining state of higher education in Pakistan is also accompanied by the fact that, there is a lack of communication between educational bodies throughout the country. The report pointed out that the Punjab HEC and federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association continuously engaged in conflicts and disputed throughout the year 2016-17.

The recent publication of Quacquarelli Symonds World Universities Rankings 2018 saw only one of our 180+ universities under the top 500 universities, in 431st place on the list. In the world University Ranking last year 2016, issued by the Times Higher Education, not a single Pakistani university made it to the top 500 whereas only 3 universities made it into top 800, including Comsats Institute of Information Technology, National University of Science and Technology (NUST) and Quaid-e-Azam University. These facts and figures are enough to sum up the dismal and declining state of higher education and research in Pakistan and also ask for government’s immediate measures to be taken.

Universities all over the world perform two basic functions: teaching and research. All renowned and credible international ranking systems in the world are assessed and evaluated through their ability of producing quality research material which contributes approximately 85% to its overall score. An evaluation of our universities, based on the criterion of above aspects, show that our educational institutions are only limited to teaching institutions, with relatively less focus given to research. There are no new inventions coming out of our institutions, neither are we registering any new patents on a national or international level. Minimal amount of research which is carried out is academic in nature and doesn’t effectively contribute to the betterment of the society.

Mismanagement from government, lower budget allocation and lack of investment in the research and development sector by private firms can also be attributed to the deteriorating and dismal prospect of higher education in Pakistan. Allocation for research and development expenditure have always remained low, with only 0.29% allocation of GDP, way less than the average expenditure in developing countries (2.4%) of their GDP on research. According to a recent survey, Pakistan is short of 40,000 PhD’s. Currently there are 60,699 researchers working in Pakistan, out of which 10,670 researchers hold a PhD degree which is too less, as compared to developed countries. This is the reason Pakistan has been ranked 131 out of 141 countries in the Global Innovative Index (GII) 2015. The country’s GII index has continuously suffered a downward trend over the past 5 years. Despite the fact that HEC has granted thousands of PhD’s since 2002 and students have returned to Pakistan after their completion, the declining trend of GII has created an alarming situation for the higher education sector in Pakistan.

Switzerland tops the Global Innovative Index (GII) rankings with 57% of foreign researchers working in the country due to generous and attractive incentives being offered to them. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there are no rewards and benefits provided to the researchers due to which our GII rankings are constantly declining for the past few years.

The HEC launched a Tenure Track System (TTS) offering attractive pay scales and packages for PhD’s. However, the whole system was flawed and ineffective, entailing necessary modifications and changes in its polices. The tenure track was initially put into operation to assess and evaluate the performance, intelligence, and competence of the researcher in teaching and research. Instead, the TTS staff in most institutions is ineffectively wasting it for non-academic purposes, thus destroying its core purpose.

HEC has laid more emphasis on quantity rather than asking for quality, telling the researchers to produce more publications, irrespective of keeping an eye-check on the quality of the research material. This leads to one of the main reasons, as to why not a single research journal in the scientific and engineering fields has received global recognition and exposure.

Furthermore, there is little recognition of the published work in the eyes of HEC, with major changes required in this regard. According to HEC rules, to qualify for an associate level member of PhD faculty, a four-year post PhD teaching experience is required along with 10 published research papers in HEC recognized journals. PhD degree holders, who have written academic books, don’t qualify in this regard, and are not considered for these positions. Confine. It shows absence of effective planning in the Higher Education Commission and also the inefficiency of confining a clear criterion for the researchers to follow.

Another reason attributed to the downfall of higher education is that of affiliated colleges, which play a major role in degrading the reputation of the degrees. Most colleges in the country have affiliations with one or another college or university for their undergrad and postgrad degrees. The affiliated colleges, in most cases, have poor infrastructure, dismal conditions of laboratories and building, and ineffective and poor teaching staff. The most disheartening part is, however, that the very same students in affiliated colleges end up getting the same degrees, as their fellow students studying at the main campuses, who enjoy better teaching staff and facilities. This further hampers the positive reputation of the academic program and the university itself.

The deplorable condition of our primary and secondary education is another major contributing factor towards the declining state of higher education in Pakistan. The foundation of tertiary education is laid upon primary and secondary education in Pakistan. Primary and Secondary education in Pakistan is itself mired into social and economic problems including poverty and unemployment, substandard evaluation system, lower allocation of budget, lack of facilities and infrastructure, high dropout and lower enrolment and security concerns are attributing towards its downfall. Due to these issues, students enter universities, carrying weak concepts and understandings of academic subjects.

A recent study concluded that language and mathematics skills of country’s high school graduates were equal to that of second graders in the developed countries. Chances are bleak of those students effectively thriving in university education.

The root cause of an exacerbated situation of Pakistan’s higher education sector is non-coherency of policies and the priorities of our national planners. A greater focus should be given to primary and secondary education, which can act as a baseline for tertiary education, same as what Korea and China did in 1950’s to 1980’s. And once the foundation of primary and secondary education was strongly embedded, they shifted the focus towards the tertiary education. The result of this policy enabled them to establish a strong, effective, and organized education sector in the country. At present, their universities are fiercely competing with top European and American universities.

Frequent changes in policies and continuous political interventions have also hindered progress in the higher education and research sector. There are many examples of educational policies in the past, which fell prey to political interference. Similarly, development in many policies came to a standstill due to the appointment of incompetent individuals, lacking clear vision and management skills.

These facts and figures should be a wake-up call for national planners and higher educational authorities, and a combined consensus from all stakeholders is required so to build a more coherent and clear strategy for higher education sector. The strategy should also contour the future aims and objectives needed to be achieved, and also rectify the current issues faced by the higher education sector in Pakistan.

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