Higher Education in Pakistan – Quo Vadis

Higher Education in Pakistan

Around the world and over the decades, when we generalize the concept of successful communicative individuals, and rapidly-developing nations, the sole idea which is predominantly proclaimed as its cornerstone is that of education. In Pakistan education suffers from a dilemma which is extravagantly convoluted but yet to be solved. The predicaments that the education system in Pakistan faces hinder our way towards progress and success.

At the outset, it is essential to know that one of the reasons our education system is rotten to the core is the gridlock the higher education faces. In Pakistan, up till 2002, universities were recognized by the University Grants Commission (UGC) which drew its powers from the University Grants Commission Act, 1974. The Act was revised in 2002 through a presidential ordinance which established the Higher Education Commission (HEC). The HEC then set forth a multitude of aims; the formulation of education policy, assurance of quality to meet international standards as well as endowment of accrediting academic degrees, whilst simultaneously uplifting developed institutions in Pakistan. Although these being some of the goals HEC longed to achieve, God knows what evil-eyed sacrileges were cussed that today the HEC only seems to have left with the authority of recognizing degrees only.

It is pertinent to say that HEC’s dismal performance not only shattered the hopes of a nation which aspired to have an efficient education system but also worked as a perfect stimulant for the emergence of more private sector institutions. Even though, back in 2010, a disastrous hole was dug when the Government of Pakistan decided to privatize education. This notion was then furthered by the Punjab government which later on privatized 26 government colleges of the province.

However, the only visible alteration the privatization of education brought along was that in figures and facts. Of a country, whose literacy rate is already below 45% — and the figure has literates who only know how to write their name — one can very easily imagine what the standard of education in Pakistan is. With just 2.3% of the GDP being allocated to education, the privatization of schools, colleges and, more importantly, universities causes massive damage to the poor, who seemingly cannot afford exuberant fees, and fight the considerably gigantic inflation, all at the same time.

Higher Education in Pakistan 1The exuberant fees charged by private sector institutions caused relentless across Pakistan. And it was only recently that the government petitioned a case against the private institutions because some schools and universities allegedly raised their fees by 30% to 100%. Moreover, the government also demanded a cut in the prevailing fees. This incident has raised a distinct question: are these private institutions a mafia or is it the state’s utmost failure to provide the citizens with a standardized education that these private schools and universities use for profiteering?  However, it does come as the state’s responsibility to provide every child with ‘free and compulsory’ education as mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan. Even the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates education as a fundamental right of every human being.

Private sector institutions, on the other hand, hold the view that the importance they withhold cannot be overlooked because over 40% of Pakistani students are receiving privatized education. These institutions also claim that good education isn’t inexpensive anywhere around the world. The only difference is that the non-profit universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc) draw the funds from the government or other sources. Thus one might concur to the fact that it is the government’s responsibility to raise the standard of public education or provide more funds to government institutions for their uplift and to restrict private sector institutions from charging such hefty fees which the middle and lower middle classes cannot afford to pay.

Another enigma for the HEC has been the persistent increase in the quantity of PhDs rather than their quality. After scholarships and stipends were allotted to graduates for pursuing a PhD, it revealed only later that many of them did not even deserve these compensations. A number of graduates got their research done by other astute intellectuals, and on the basis of preferential treatment, their relatives became PhDs as well. The issue of quality of PhDs has become an exceedingly crucial for we now see that these individuals tend to go for PhD with simply no experience. Dr Sikander Hayat, chairperson of FC College’s History Department believes that a condition shall be put up for the individuals willing to have a PhD. He iterates that an aspirant to a PhD degree must possess prior experience in the field they want to pursue their doctorate in. Hence, the criterion for prospective PhDs should be the same as that for the doctors who aspire to specialize in a field. Why is it so that the doctors are allowed to take an FCPS or other specialization exam only when they have done a 1-year house job recognized by the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan (CPSP), and a 6-month practice particularly in their desired specialization field? Such decisive mechanisms should be a part of the HEC policies but seemingly the Commission has been disregarding this critically important issue. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave a verdict against parliamentarians having fake degrees, no tangible action was taken by the HEC against the universities which had recognized those degrees, instead we saw HEC sleeping over the issue.

Amidst all these issue, the privatization of higher education is another matter of grave concern. After the year 2002, we have seen an unprecedented surge in private sector universities. But, their reality is revealed only after the student applies for admission to such universities and also pays hefty amounts in fees. Then he comes to know that a number of these universities are not even recognized by the HEC. An even bigger example of HEC’s malfunctioning comes to the fore when we see such universities’ advertisements for hiring faculties. Dictums like “foreign-qualified” are set as trademarks in these ads, disapproving of the individuals who had earned their PhDs from the same universities, publishing such advertisements. This raises the question on the standard of these universities who long for employing the holders of foreign degrees rather than their own PhDs. The deterioration within HEC has now become a chronic ache for Pakistan’s education system. Recently when a Public Service Commission conducted interviews for the posts of lecturers and associate professors, it came as an absolute shock that a hefty number of unsuccessful candidates had PhDs on their credit.

Unfortunately, the shame tale does not end here.

Pakistan’s academic system is, as everyone would agree, far from robust. An estimated 40% of students cheat in matriculation, intermediate and higher level examinations. Teachers are no more ethical than shopkeepers, policemen, politicians, judges and generals. Hence, one can very evidently generalize the standards of Pakistani universities as well. In a recently released ranking, Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) Islamabad was plunked on the top in the general category. While on the other end of the spectrum, Preston University in Kohat was ranked 67th, thus ending up at the bottom of HEC’s ranking. Media highlighted those that were at the top, but paid scant attention to the plight of those at the bottom of the rankings. Ranking universities is a big business globally that is often led by specialized teams in established publication houses. The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings and US News College rankings are some institutions independently conducting university rankings. Unlike HEC, others who rank universities do not have a direct bearing on the universities’ future funding and resources.

Being a direct sponsor of the universities, the HEC must abandon the practice of publicizing its university rankings. These rankings are not merely about research excellence or student experience. In fact, the HEC allots a significant weight to criteria that measure universities’ compliance to HEC’s diktats. Put simply, HEC rewards conforming universities with a higher placement in the rankings. This is a classic example of conflict of interest. Resultantly, one may see obvious omissions or lower rankings of certain private universities who enjoy a much larger national and international repute — LUMS comes to my mind — yet they rank low because of not complying with HEC’s standards.

By now, it must have been evident enough that I am highly critical of the shenanigans of the HEC. But I must also admit that HEC’s record has not been entirely bleak; it sent students to overseas universities, attracted foreign faculty to teach in local universities, created digital library access and took some positive initiatives to encourage research. However, what cannot be argued is the fact that the afore-mentioned dilemmas that higher education in Pakistan faces are some of the most appalling ones. It, therefore, means that education system in Pakistan needs to develop, but slowly and carefully. Provincial administrations should be helped to build technical capacity so that they can be properly entrusted with key decisions, such as granting charters to new universities, university admission policies, etc. And while the HEC ought to be slowly downsized, some of its essential functions — such as quality control, foreign scholarships and donor programmes — must be kept intact under federal control. Moreover, the importance of students shall be acknowledged too when ranking universities in Pakistan would create a more developed and well-researched survey, showing better results. Hence, to spawn a generation of writers, we need a generation of avid readers and for that we need excellent education.

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