How to improve Pakistani universities

Published: May 29, 2011
The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History [email protected]

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) held a conference on ‘setting standards for 21st century Pakistan’ in our universities on May 26. This was an important initiative because the research achievements of our universities and their developmental impact upon society are not appreciated. The fact that the universities have become more dynamic, since Dr Attaur Rahman became the chairman of the HEC in 2002, was also brought out.

I myself am one of those who have always appreciated some of the changes brought about by the HEC. In this article, however, I will focus upon improving Pakistani universities further. We have 132 higher education institutions and enrolment stands at 948,364 (2009-10), which is still not as high as in other developing countries let alone developed ones. However, in my view, not all these institutions should be called universities. The term university should be reserved for an institution teaching all possible subjects — science, engineering, medicine, law, social sciences, humanities, arts, etc. — and not just a few of them. Institutions specialising in one or two fields — such as medicine, engineering, education, etc. — may give degrees if they have sufficiently high standards, but they should not be called ‘universities’. This will also save us the expense of a bloated top administrative bureaucracy in these institutions, thus reducing the number of rectors, vice rectors, vice chancellors and pro-vice-chancellors etc.

Secondly, we have 2,800 scholars pursuing PhD programmes in foreign countries and 3,800 in Pakistan. The HEC tells us that between 1947-2002, only 3,281 PhDs were produced, while between 2002 till 2010, 3,037 people got doctorates from Pakistani universities. My view on this is that the initiative of sending scholars to get PhDs abroad is excellent and needs to not only be continued but also expanded. It is probably the best thing which has happened to our younger faculty. However, I have great doubts about the PhD programme in Pakistani universities, at least in the social sciences, humanities and arts. I will concede that there might be a few good scholars with conscientious and competent supervisors guiding viable theses. However, in most cases the scholar produces shoddy and sub-standard work with much plagiarised material. The supervisor, either incompetent or overburdened and, in many cases, not a specialist of the area in which the student is working, just ensures that the student passes. It is true that theses are sent to foreign referees for evaluation but they generally feel they cannot ruin the career of a Third World student or do not want to take the risk of annoying their Pakistani counterparts. Thus, the referee reports are not too reliable. Moreover, the examiner is forced to pass the student even if he or she cannot answer most of the questions because the supervisor tells him that, the referee reports being good, there is no way the student can fail. Thus, mediocrities keep masquerading as PhDs.

So what is the solution? In my view, most of the specialist ‘universities’ should be merged into large, proper, multi discipline universities. Others, which cannot be merged for political or social reasons, can be dubbed as ‘university colleges’. We do need a fairly large number of institutions of higher education because of our large youth population. However, we can use the term ‘university’ selectively, for only some of them.

The universities should be classified as follows. First, there should be research universities. These should be postgraduate institutions with courses at the master’s and doctoral level. However, the latter should only be added once we have one hundred per cent faculty members qualified from abroad. These universities should be equipped like world-class universities. They should also have the high salaries the HEC has introduced under the Tenure Track System (TTS). However, at present the HEC allows promotion to the rank of full professor if one has published only 15 articles in HEC-recognised journals. This number is too small and the HEC recognises Pakistani journals of very unequal quality. In my view such high salaries (Rs0.2 million plus on the average) should be given to people who have published more than 15 articles (books and encyclopaedia articles should be counted) in the best journals in the field, published in America, Europe, Australia and Canada. If top of the line journals are published in other countries, these, too, should be included but only after a rigorous quality check.

A candidate need not have all publications in refereed foreign journals but at least half of the total minimum requirement for the post should be in what are now called ‘W’ and ‘X’ category journals. Another advantage for such an applicant should be that his or her work need not be sent for evaluation to foreign referees. The top of the line journals have such a stringent criterion of evaluation that there is no need to waste time by sending out published work of this high quality to referees again.

Next in the hierarchy should be teaching universities. The faculty of these universities should be in the national pay scales as well as the TTS. The criteria for the national pay scales should be the same as they are at present. One could, in theory, become a professor in BPS (grades) 21 and 22 without publishing in foreign top quality journals. However, the teaching load in these universities should be higher than in the research universities. In short, these universities will look like some of our large general universities at present. Of course, consistent with the definition of a university, all branches of knowledge will be taught there.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the university colleges. These will have no TTS faculty and they may affiliate colleges or teach fewer subjects than a proper university. Of course, teaching being their focus, they will have no research degrees and the faculty need not do much research for promotion. Indeed, the faculty could opt between taking examinations or publishing papers, monographs and books within the country.

I am aware of the fact that, on the face of it, the elitist research universities will offend many well-meaning people. The sad fact however, is that the top universities of the world — Harvard Oxford, Berkeley, Cambridge, Yale, etc. — are research universities. They are elitist institutions and do have more money, more facilities and better faculty and better equipment than teaching universities. Pakistan can create at least two world class research universities. Let us concentrate our resources on them instead of spreading them too thin in over 132 institutions we insist on calling ‘universities’.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • mussarat
    May 29, 2011 - 5:45AM

    Thank God still we have some dedicated people who are putting best efforts in promoting education in this society that is miserably lacking. Keep up.


  • May 29, 2011 - 6:16AM

    Sir your recommendations focus on the administrative hierarchy which is all well and good, but like all attempts at reform of education in Pakistan, at any level fails to focus on what students need. Recommend

  • White Russian
    May 29, 2011 - 8:38AM

    Excellent suggestions. Is someone listening?
    I have an old standing suggestion regarding publications in international journals. It is a fact there are far too numerous journals available worldwide in many disciplines. It is also a fact that, out of these numerous journals for a given field, majority of them are very low standard, accept publications very easily, do not involve strict scholarly peer oversight, and do not matter much in terms of any real advancement of knowledge. These journals exist for different reasons, the details of which are irrelevant for the point I want to make, but many of these reasons are related to business models of some of the leading publishing houses. Let us call these type A journals.

    There are other journals which are real leaders. In most of cases, these are run by professional or academic societies of a given research community. As a rule of thumb, more a journal is influential, if its parent society is influential in terms of having leading scientists of the world as its members. As another rule of thumb, the leading societies of USA, West Europe (meaning UK, France, Germany), and Japan, have the most influential scientist as their members. The journals published by these societies are responsible for upholding a direction and quality of research internationally, and mediocre work is most difficult to get through the peer review system of these journals. Let us call these type B journals.

    Now a disturbing fact: The heaviest chunk of HEC money have gone to surge of publications (from Pak) in type A journals. The research by majority of these Pak authors is useless, and just a waste of HEC grants. Another disturbing fact: Majority of Pakistani researchers are not properly trained or educated to become capable of publishing in Type B journals. They just can not compete with the intellectual elite, or even third rate scientists of first and second world. The East European countries, like Poland, Czech, Hungary etc, which were nowhere in international scholarly scene just a decade ago, have fared much better without the colossal spendings (as done by HEC in our case).
    (Continued, with request to moderator to not to axe my these posts)Recommend

  • White Russian
    May 29, 2011 - 8:47AM

    Coming to my suggestion. As presently HEC is evaluating scientist on the basis of (arguably inappropriate) metric of impact factor, I would suggest HEC to also employ another ranking of international journals on the basis of metric of rejection rate. This is simply the number of articles rejected for publication divided by total number of manuscripts received in a given period of time by a journal. Higher this number means that journal has more stringent quality criteria. It would be more sensible for HEC to reward a researcher more extravagantly who publishes in a journal with highest rejection rate than the one who publishes somewhere which publishes virtually all the crap sent to them. Recommend

  • Akhtarrao
    May 29, 2011 - 9:15AM

    Good suggetions and recommendations.
    In compmetent supervisor must be held rather an incompetent scholar/no doubt,mostly scholars do not work themselves, their work is done by some one else e.g. spous/father/or hired resercher on minimum cost etc.
    This is serious and must be checked by HECRecommend

  • Truthbetold
    May 29, 2011 - 12:36PM

    I think the emphasis being placed on university education is misplaced. In a country where a large percentage of the population are illiterate, priority should be in offering high quality free primary and secondary school education. A country can’t make meaningful progress unless the population as a whole is well-educated through high-school. Moreover, students in primary/secondary schools should be taught to think logically, objectives\y and creatively. Curriculum should be devoid of untruths, distorted history and religious underpinning. Once this is done, in time, high quality entrants to higher college education would automatically produced. Only such an approach can eliminate poverty and illiteracy.Recommend

  • May 29, 2011 - 2:09PM

    A great take on the subject. But for all this we do and will need a centralized body like HEC to keep monitoring and functioning. Recommend

  • Catharine Moody
    May 29, 2011 - 2:18PM

    wow, someone in Pakistan still thinks about “Education” other than Bombs, attacks, Indian fear, terrorists, Begging money named as aid, seriously, I cant believe that. gotta be kidding or…Recommend

  • folkfiende
    May 29, 2011 - 3:00PM

    We first need to put schholeducation in order, All the conccocted cocktail of hate india, banya hindu, how we worn the wars and how Indaas the agressor and hedgemon needs to be reviewed and wweded out.It is causing an apocalypse in Pakista.
    Allah hafizRecommend

  • Adnan Khan
    May 29, 2011 - 3:11PM

    I would like to invite Mr. Writer to visit Scandinavia and benchmark the universities here. I will take him to the best and the worst, just to observe what process model are we following here. Then I would request him to re-write this article. Regarding the definition of universities he described above and regarding other issues in which he has compared pakistani educational system with other country’s one.

    He forgot to mention the element of descrimination which is hard to find in Pakistani universities and which is very common here…!!!!

    Secondly, the %age of local students in master programmes here is around 0% to 30%. Most of the students are foreigners. In some cases whole departments have been closed down due to shortage of students.

    I would say that the above criticism may not be true for each university in Pakistan. I know Karachi University does not have those bad things (cant say about others).

    Point is, improvements can be made without criticising the system coz one man cant know about everything in the country. This could only be his picture coz he is not aware of the bigger picture.Recommend

  • Umer
    May 29, 2011 - 3:20PM

    I being studied in one of Pakistan’s best engineering university agree with the author about the teaching universities and research universities. The students of bachelors mostly in sciences and engineering are a victim of these. the faculty is busy in research and devotes little time to preparing lectures. So the universities should be distinguished between research and teaching universities.Recommend

  • May 29, 2011 - 10:23PM

    I just love the conversations (sane ones) on express tribune .Recommend

  • Jonaid Iqbal
    May 31, 2011 - 12:36AM

    Sir, as student of the [Dhaka] University we had two intersting teachers- one British John S Turner wo on the first day in Hours Class tod us the secret of success: drink lots of milk, slep well, don’t doze in the class and listen intently to the Professor,
    The second was [Then] a Pakistani Reader (a liitle lower in rank to Professor) who had entirely a new idea of studies inside Universities.He would say that when you go out fom the Univesity few wouold be interested inn the subject but they will judge you as a product of this Univesrity. You are only specialising in one subject. Howecver University education means universal learning and therefore all subjects on earth, asronomy, biology, chemistry, commerce, economics, geography, history, literature, mmathematics, physics, knoeldege of nuclear subject, poetry, zoology, etc, should be in the ken of an University student.
    We listened to both. It proved in the long run that [Dhaka] University products were exceedingly good on the national scale.
    However, my quarrel with all these high flown ideas about higher learning at Unievsrity level haas tro do with education at the infant and promary level Only by investing fully in good education at the lowest level a country we can have lads and lasses of the best intellect who can take a place and complete with the best in the world. So we should have the best trained teachers at Infant, and primamry classes who if they are grounded well and taught well wew can do with even mediocre teachers in Higher seats of education. May I repeat (Pltor?) or Socrates (?) who.said Give your child to a slave and you shall have two slaves. Recommend

  • KS Joya
    Jul 17, 2011 - 4:55PM

    As for as local PhD in Pakistan is concerned, we can follow a stradard procedure for the quality check, simply implement a 3-4 research papers restriction in international journals.
    You can improve the quality so easily, no need of rocket science.

    But, I do agree with Dr Tariq Rahman on research side,
    I strongly feel that there should be few high class research fraternities in Pakistan.
    I am a researcher myself and do feel that we are lacking in science and technology research.


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