The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has recently published ranking of Pakistani universities, both general as well as category-wise. The ranking depicts overall position of a particular university vis-à-vis other universities in the country without shedding any light on the academic atmosphere and quality of teaching and learning within the institutions. The question is whether higher education has fulfilled the promises that were made to the public while establishing the HEC. It will be helpful to recall and recapitulate what claims were made to the public while taking the new initiatives twelve years back.
The ‘Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan’ which was set up in 2001, released its report in March 2002 and reiterated its vision of higher education in Pakistan in the following words:
“Transformation of our institutions of higher education into world class seats of learning, equipped to foster high quality education, scholarship and research, to produce enlightened citizens with strong moral and ethical values that build a tolerant and pluralistic society rooted in the culture of Pakistan.”
In pursuance of the recommendations made by the task force, University Grants Commission was replaced by the Higher Education commission (HEC) and was tasked to manage the affairs of higher education in the country. Although the HEC itself was not clear as to what is meant by ‘word class universities’ but the public in general and the academic community in particular were assured that soon universities in Pakistan would be providing the same quality of higher education that is provided at the best universities around the world. The same claim was made regarding research productivity and production of knowledge and turning Pakistan into a knowledge economy within a stipulated period of time.
In its bid to expand and improve the quality of education, scholarship and research in the country, the HEC demanded substantial enhancement in financial allocation to higher education. It goes to the credit of Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, first Chairman of HEC, who had close relations with the then President Musharraf, that he was able to secure substantial funding for higher education in the country. As a result of strenuous efforts made by HEC, Pakistan has witnessed an exponential growth in the number of higher education institutions and enrolment in these universities or degree awarding institutions (DAI). Table 1 reflects the expansion in terms of numbers of higher education institutions and the recurrent grants released by the UGC and its successor HEC from 1999 to 2015.
Two trends can readily be observed by looking at the figures in the table. Firstly, financial allocation to higher education has substantially increased after the establishment of HEC; and secondly, there has been an exponential growth in higher education both in terms of numbers of higher education institutes and their enrolment. Enrolment in higher education sector increased form 114,010 in 1999 to 18,28,331 in 2014-15, thus achieving more than 1,600 per cent increase in higher education enrolment. The table reflects the release of recurrent grants and that too to the public sector universities only, although a good number of institutions are working in the private sector. For example, in 2013-2014, out of 161 universities and DAIs, 91 (57%) were working in public sector, whereas 70 (43%) were working in the private sector, with 88% and 14% enrolment in public and private sector respectively. An encouraging sign is that there is no gender disparity as far as enrolment in higher education is concerned, as male and female enrolment rate is the same, which is 50 percent each. Teachers’ strength in the public sector universities is 77%, against only 23% percent in private sector institutions.
In HEC ranking 2014, there are 67 universities in general category, 17 in engineering, 15 in business, 6 in veterinary and agricultural sciences, 13 health and medical universities and two in arts and design category. While 48 universities and degree awarding institutions have not been included in this ranking exercise because of either being distance education institutions or being too young. In overall ranking of top ten universities in 2014, it is encouraging to see that nine out of ten, are the public sector universities. However, only three are general universities while seven are specialised in one field or the other.
The HEC ranking is made on the basis of five components or criterion, namely Quality Assurance, Teaching ‘quality, Research, Finance and Facilities and Social Integration or participation in community development activities. Out of these, research caries much weight, that is 41% marks compared to 15 percent marks for quality assurance, 30 for teaching quality, 10 for finances and 4 for community participation. This ranking does not provide any information regarding the comparison of Pakistani universities with other universities around the world or within the region; the objective the HEC was established to achieve.
Luckily, we have some other sources of information to check how our universities have performed in comparison with other universities at regional or international level. In Table 1, there is data from organisations that work on collecting information on research productivity in terms of publications and international ranking agencies. Last two columns of the table give total number of articles published by all universities in Pakistan from 2005 to 20015 in ISI indexed journals and articles per university. It is encouraging to note that the number of research articles published in ISI indexed journals have progressively increased, but detailed analysis reveals that it is because of the substantial contribution made by a few top universities. Rest of the universities are working way below their potential.
Second indicator is international ranking which is done by eight different agencies around the world using a different set of criterion and thus yielding different results. That is why during the past few years, many universities in Pakistan claimed their top position in Pakistan because they were using results announced by different agencies. However, the most favoured and widely used ranking is the one made by a London-based organisation known as QS World Universities Ranking. Recently, it has started announcing a regional ranking list as well. In QS World Ranking 2015, not a single Pakistani university was able to find its place, although there was one in 2011 and 2012 rankings. However, the Table 2 below clearly reveals how the performance of Pakistani universities in 2015 has regressed from that in 2011. It is interesting, however, that in Asian ranking where a somewhat different criterion is used, there are 10 Pakistani universities in a list of top 300. However, it will be interesting to note that Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea which had almost same per capita income in mid 1960s, have 21, 11 and 45 universities respectively among top 300 in Asia while India has 17.
It can be said that the HEC was established to achieve two objectives: expanding higher education opportunities for wider public; and improving the quality of higher education to achieve societal need of developing knowledge economy. Although the HEC has been able to achieve the first objective of expansion in higher education but a lot still needs to be done in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning and research productivity. The HEC could not adopt or develop any measure to assess quality of teaching and learning within public and private sector universities. There is a need to follow a rigorous policy and to develop an effective mechanism and instrument to monitor the quality of higher education in the country beyond bibliometrics.
Serious efforts are also needed to develop a culture of research within the universities by promoting cooperation and collaboration not only between different faculties within the university but also among the universities across Pakistan as well as abroad.
At present, Pakistan is confronted with myriad of social problems. It is disheartening to note that there is dearth of research on those issues. Universities do not function in social vacuum. Universities need to be responsive to the issues and problems affecting the society, research these problems empirically and propose viable solutions for these problems. Last, but not the least, the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training should seriously think to establish an organisation or mechanism to carry out evaluative ranking exercise outside the ambit of HEC, as it is undesirable that ranking is done by the same institution which is responsible for execution of the policies.
By: (Prof Dr Hafiz Muhammad Iqbal)
Courtesy: Pakistan Today