A for effort
By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, Dec 02, 2011
An enquiry into the state of academia and policy research in Pakistan demands a scrutiny of the system and circumstances that governed higher education in the country for decades.
Until 10 years ago, Pakistani universities followed a mix of different structural approaches. Engineering programmes were designed on the US model, while science and social sciences programmes largely followed the UK model. Higher education suffered from a flawed bureaucratic structure. Research had deteriorated to a level where academics would write newspaper articles and call them research. They were more interested in grades, promotions and politics than teaching and research. Turning universities into seats of quality education and useful research was a monumental challenge, assigned to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan.
Its predecessor, the University Grants Commission, served more as a controller of universities, but the HEC also facilitated and promoted research.
The HEC brought structural reforms by defining a standard semester system - 128 to 136 credit hours typically taken in eight semesters over four years for a bachelor's degree, 30 credit hours for a master's degree and 18 credits in a minimum of six courses for a PhD.
It also introduced standardised qualification exams, encouraged international evaluation, and stressed publication of research in international journals. Third-party or external evaluation of research, establishment of creditation councils and quality enhancement cells in universities, and emphasis on permanent faculty for masters and PhD programmes were some of the other features of the new paradigm, based largely on the US model of higher education.
By now, Pakistan's academic landscape seems to have undergone a major change. In 2002, the number of international publications from Pakistani researches was less than 600. It rose to 5,200 in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, there has been a fivefold increase in Finance and Economics publications by Pakistani authors. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of Pakistani articles in research literature of the world. Despite a much smaller budget for higher education, Pakistan contributes as much to international research as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has surpassed many other countries in the last few years. It still lags behind Iran and Turkey, however.
The number of citations per publication for Pakistani authors has remained constant over the years, and that indicates the quality has not gone down.
Today, more than 50 percent of British universities run research collaborations with Pakistan that involve about 1,000 Pakistani students.
More than 5,000 students have been given scholarships for PhD programmes abroad in the last decade. About 90 percent of them returned to serve Pakistan. The HEC is pursuing 30 cases against scholars who breached the undertaking that they would return. All the returning scholars were incentivised with a guaranteed one year job with a starting salary of Rs80,000 and half a million rupees in research grant. And officials say this has worked.
But with constant political turmoil and a relatively low priority for education, Pakistan has a long way to go. In societies based on knowledge and research, the university is the core of social, economic and scientific progress. It is bound to the community, industry, and government, all of which rely on the university for policy research that impacts the entire society.
In Pakistan, there is little emphasis on knowledge, and therefore little knowledge exchange. In the words of Dr Sohail Naqvi, who used to be a senior official at the HEC and has studied and taught in the US, "We have just been barren in knowledge transfer to various segments of the society."
Although there is hope that Pakistan's academia is turning the corner, it would be unrealistic to expect the university to become the guiding spirit for policymaking overnight, in a society that is not necessarily guided by real knowledge.