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.