Faculty development in higher education

Published: June 17, 2011
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The writer is a former federal minister of science and technology and a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission

The writer is a former federal minister of science and technology and a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission

The single most important factor in determining the quality of education in universities is the quality of faculty members. This critically important element of higher education had been largely ignored till the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was established as a powerful autonomous institution in October 2002, operating directly under the chief executive of Pakistan. The situation of most of our universities was deplorable, with only about 500 international research total publications per year from all of Pakistan — a national research productivity which was far below that of a single good university in Singapore or Hong Kong! The reason being that out of some 17,000 faculty members in our universities, only 3,500 had the basic qualification of a PhD degree needed for faculty appointments. Of these, only a few hundred were actually involved in research — a pathetic situation.

Most people do not appreciate the fundamentally different role of universities from colleges. Colleges have the primary function of transferring existing knowledge to students. Universities have an additional central function — to extend the frontiers of knowledge to new horizons. Indeed, the world rankings of universities are largely determined on the basis of their creative output — research publications in high quality international journals, PhD output, international patents, citations, Nobel Prizes and other honors won by their faculty members, etc. Highly ranked universities are not judged by the size or beauty of their campuses, or by the number of students enrolled. Cambridge University has buildings hundreds of years old but has produced about 70 Nobel Laureates! The quality and creativity of universities is determined by beautiful minds, not beautiful buildings.

After the formation of the HEC in 2002, efforts were therefore primarily focused on improving the quality of faculty members in our universities. About 11,000 scholarships were awarded for various training programmes at a cost of over Rs60 billion which included about 5,000 scholarships for PhD level training in leading universities in USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and China. The largest Fulbright programme in the world was initiated, with half the funds being provided by the HEC for training students  in Ivy League universities. Scholarships were provided for MS leading to PhD in order to have students develop a strong basic understanding of the subjects and cover the deficiencies in our undergraduate system of education. A strictly merit-based selection process was ensured. About 10,000 to 15,000 students would appear in a national examination every three months, and the best performing 400-500 students would be shortlisted. For the final selection, if the students were being considered for  scholarships to, say, Germany, a team of five to six 5-6 Professors from German universities would visit the various cities of Pakistan and hold face to face interviews with the applicants. No one from HEC was allowed to participate in the interview process to ensure that the selection was strictly based on merit.

By adopting this strictly merit-based procedure, about 5,000 students were sent abroad in order to eventually more than double the PhD level faculty in our universities. Feedback from foreign supervisors was tremendous — numerous letters received were all full of high praise — many stated that they had not seen such brilliant students from anywhere in the world. Some of these students have now returned after completing their doctorate studies while the remainder will return in the next couple of years bringing considerable change in the quality of teaching and research in our universities.

Universities often take 6-12 months to make appointments of freshly returned scholars due to procedures of selection. This can be very frustrating. The HEC therefore initiated a buffer programme whereby each returning scholar was appointed on a salary of an assistant professor for the first year. In order to facilitate the scholars to initiate serious research immediately on return to Pakistan, a competitive research grant of up to Rs6 million was made available to them a year before their return. This allowed the returning PhD scholars to purchase equipment, chemicals, computers etc. and initiate research even when returning to a barren environment of a newly established remote university. In addition to full-fledged foreign PhD programmes, split PhD programmes were initiated. Research facilities in local universities were drastically improved and research promoted, with the result that local PhD output increased from 200 per year in 2002 to about 700 per year in 2009. The total PhD output (local plus foreign) reached the originally targeted figure of 1,500 per year by 2009.

Massive programmes were initiated for training teachers both through post-doctoral scholarships in good foreign universities as well as through indigenous short-term training within Pakistan on recent developments ranging from one week to three months by local experts. Individual expert committees were formed in social sciences, languages, physics, as well as in basic and applied sciences to advise on other measures needed to strengthen faculty and improve standards.

The results from such measures were described by neutral foreign experts as spectacular. The number of research publications in respectable international journals shot up from about 500 per year in the year 2000 to 4,600 per year by 2009. The total number of PhDs granted (3,000) during the seven year period, 2003-2009, was about the same as in the previous 55 years. To ensure quality of PhD output, it was made mandatory that all PhD theses be evaluated by two eminent professors from technologically advanced countries prior to approval of doctorate degrees. To check plagiarism, all PhD theses were screened through a special software which was distributed in universities and a centralised monitoring unit was set up by the HEC.

International reports published on these programmes of the HEC have drawn unreserved praise after careful year-long evaluations by eminent foreign experts, including those of the World Bank, USAID, British Council. The world’s oldest and most famous scientific society, the Royal Society (London), in a book entitled A New Golden Age has termed these programmes of Pakistan as “the best practice model to be followed by other developing countries”.

Alas, for the last two years, with the slashing of the budget of HEC, the foreign scholarship programme was completely halted. The world’s top journal, Nature, while praising the HEC reforms, had earlier warned in an editorial that Pakistan would slide back to the ‘stone age’, which existed in the higher education landscape prior to the formation of the HEC, if the HEC programmes were disturbed. It is hoped that the government will change this situation by implementing the decision reached in the education policy that 7 per cent of GDP will be set aside for education.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Jun 18, 2011 - 1:02AM

    It was bound to happen
    It did happen
    And now we are back to square one, unless the government wakes up one day and decided to do away with education once and for all.Recommend

  • Zafar
    Jun 18, 2011 - 1:14AM

    Hi Dr. Atta,

    Thanks for the nice article.

    I agree with you on most of the developments made on higher education in Pakistan by HEC for almost a decade. But there is one point which is always missing in your analysis and that really worries me. This could be a key ingredient when it comes to achieve your goals as individuals or as a nation.

    Where is the Iqbal’s zeal and zest (khhudi) in both faculties and students?

    If you look around what you find out is a bleak picture. Most of us are more interested in the number of research articles than paying attention to quality research. This habit has spread at an exponential rate over the last decade. One of the way to gauge this attitude or how far we are from quality research (zeal) can be determined optimistically in the following way. Calculate the citation per each research article of a sample of top five Asian universities and compare with the citation per each article of our universities for the last five years. Since its not a long time to HEC therefore five year analysis would be sufficient to assess comprehensively the progress of HEC. This analysis can be carried out very easily with a few clicks of a button on Web of Knowledge (www.isiknowledge.com). You may end up a surprising even shocking result. The obvious reasons unfortunately come from our materialistic natures for example money, promotions, fame, timely completion of PhDs to name a few. It is only after knowing this trend and its consequences on the future we would be able to make efforts towards making some changes in our policies that address fundamental problems in our attitudes.

    This is also linked with an old objective criticism which many people have being doing on HEC since its birth. How is it going to be possible to achieve good quality higher education without addressing the problems at the primary education. To me this is where zeal and zest reside that can change our attitudes on high moral grounds in the future of our lives. In which case each article will be a brand new idea worth a noble prize. For else our faculty is just like a high-quality-photostat machine with an HEC stamp that is super efficient in copying ideas. It has a major difference from traditional machines though, its ability to give birth to more photo-copying machines.

    Thanks for reading … Have a great day.
    RegardsRecommend

  • Achtung Achtung
    Jun 18, 2011 - 1:15AM

    Professor, when we eat the pudding, we immediately know about its taste, without turning to newspaper opeds. Condition of universities is visible to all of us, and nothing has changed beneath the cosmetic layer.

    It seems, like AQKhan, you can not live without maintaining your presence in the newspapers by reminding us every few days about your past glories.Recommend

  • Shahid Saeed
    Jun 18, 2011 - 3:13AM

    PhD ratio in faculty across universities has gone down from 29.1% to 22% between 2002 and 2007. That is not to suggest that these programs are bad. Recommend

  • Qasim Ahmad Ilyas
    Jun 18, 2011 - 11:29AM

    hmmm! Nice article elaborating enough details to pertain quality education in Pakistani universities but Dear author ! Plagiarism is very common in our universities as i have observed. Well,PPP Govt. would never let HEC to find such criminals whose degrees are fake and spoofing people of Pakistan.
    HEC ZINDABAD! HEC! Carry on your mission. We are with you.Recommend

  • Kashif Shaikh
    Jun 18, 2011 - 1:26PM

    I think creation of HEC was a good move and is very well elablorated by Dr Ata Sahab, but we have not been able to capitalize on it and move it forward say for example from increasing the number of PHDs to increaing the quality of PHDs. Dr Sahab has reminded all of us many times about the laurels earned by HEC which are all true, but I think now He needs to go beyond these rhetorics and work in creating more high quality university for which I now He would be able to generate lot of commitments from Governments, NGO’s and Pakistanies including overseas Pakistanis. This would be a great gift by him to Pakistan which will be remembered in many centuries to come. Recommend

  • Mooed
    Jun 18, 2011 - 6:59PM

    oh yes, many people enjoyed free holidays in Europe and came back as ‘PHDs’
    Don’ tell me the numbers.. tell that what benefit have these Phd’s brought to Pakistan?
    the only thing you achieved was wasting millions of Rs to build a battalion of copy paste ‘PHDs’ in every university Recommend

  • Wali
    Jun 18, 2011 - 7:15PM

    Well, TTS induction of foreign PhD has been mokoning.TTS are more intrested in making money.Just imagin,in a lasrge university in ISLAMABAD, TTS teachers are taking 7-10 courses,what will the be producing at university level one can imagine.
    We need to chnage the mind of our PhDs ,no matter they are indenious or freigners.
    They harldy are able to transfer their knowledge,however,are found more keen getting money.Recommend

  • hamza khan
    Jun 18, 2011 - 10:41PM

    i am amazed at the level of ignorance on this forum. pakistani’s are truly ignorant, and lack of education will be a curse of this country if we continue to hold this attitude. instead of appreciating professor atta ur rehman we are lambasting him for ‘self glorification’. he, along with president musharraf, deserve huge plaudits for the effort to reform pakistans educational sector. Recommend

  • Jun 19, 2011 - 12:08AM

    @Shahid Saeed:
    Please also compare your number against the increase in population. Rapid expansion of programs in universities (demanding new induction of faculty) and the sheer increase in number of universities as well.

    @Achtung Achtung:
    Thanks for your analysis. I don’t know which universities have you been looking upto! As per my experience we had been provided increasing number of facilities during this era in our universities and that certainly is related to HEC’s policies. With HEC’s fundings we, the undergrad students, were also able to take up bigger and more challenging projects which could never have been done before.

    Now this does not hold true any more and all the projects never see maturity and just die down after our degree ends (never makes it through to publications, patents or market products). All thanks to the slashing of the R&D funds of HEC by government.Recommend

  • Salman Arshad
    Jun 19, 2011 - 12:56AM

    Dr. sahab, we want to know how the money spent benefited Pakistan and its people, who PAY for those foreign degrees.
    How many of these foreign qualified PhD’s have brought innovation in the agricultural or garments industry (two largest industries) of Pakistan? Or for that matter any other industry?
    As far as I know too many of the foreign qualified people are qualified in irrelevant fields who can get good jobs only outside the country, not inside.
    Also, we need more qualified people in Social Sciences and the Arts, not technology.
    And self glorification suits the likes of Musharraf. You should not resort to his level.Recommend

  • Asad
    Jun 19, 2011 - 2:15AM

    Would be interesting to know what research work have the HEC sponsored students have been doing and what has been the quality and outcome of this research work. Has it made any impact on the field they have done research on and how have the students benefited from these researchers. Maybe HEC can put up this sort of information on their website if they already haven’t.Recommend

  • Ameer
    Jun 19, 2011 - 9:20AM

    Dear Dr. Atta,

    I am not sure whether you will be reading the posts here but I would like to bring to your attention the stupidities of your policies while you were the chairman of HEC.
    After spending billions of dollars on the foreign training of faculty, what have we achieved? The so called foreign trained faculty has done nothing but ask for high salaries. They are the people who are reluctant to teach fulltime. Their teaching quality is below that of anyone with a simple master’s degree from Pakistan. Just talk to the students. The research that they produce is pointless and a waste of time. Just check their citations. This is in addition to the plagiarized work that is being published by the Pakistani academics.
    The careers of several capable people have been brought to a halt because they do not have a PhD. They will not be promoted beyond Assistant Professor no matter what they do. If you spend a little on the web, you will find out that several people with just an undergraduate degree have earned a Nobel prize for their research and many are working as full professors at some of the best institutions of the world. Because of your policies, all such talent will be lost in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Achtung Achtung
    Jun 19, 2011 - 9:20AM

    @M. Uzair Sukhera:
    Thanks for feedback. Certainly there are universities which benefited. These include COMSATS, NUST, NDU, because of special treatment given to them. Now this is another discussion about the elitism in higher education which is of no relevance to point I wanted to make.
    Largely HEC grants have never translated to actual benefits for the students or faculty. The universities I know, never got any improvement in terms of quality of libraries, access to scientific periodicals, lab space and equipment,,, I am not saying that money was not spent, but rather it was embezzled by corrupt and semi-literate university managements.

    After the rat-race for the money began among the professors, class room quality has nose dived. I know numerous professors who never go to the class room, are always busy in fabricating fake data to get published and claim some money, awards etc. Such professors are extremely popular among the students, because they absolve students of hard work and shower grades on them. Such professors are extremely successful in advancing their career, as no one in HEC or university management questions the junk nature of their research. All you need is number of publications in a journal on Thomson’s list.

    And these corrupts professors are not the fringe. They are mainstream. They perform miracles by producing fake research in the absence of library, journals, labs. They do additional damage, because the honest and competent professors who can not compete with them, primarily because they are unable to show any miraculous progress in the absence of above mentioned necessary facilities. Here I directly blame HEC and its policies.

    Let us wait for another 5 years and circle will be complete. Pakistan will be full of mere degree holders, who will further destroy this country.Recommend

  • Tariq
    Jun 19, 2011 - 9:26AM

    Most people in favor of Dr. Atta here are the ones who enjoyed holidays in Europe in the name of studying for a Phd. They are the ones who sit idle in the universities and draw hefty salaries.
    The foreign institutions were more interested in collecting dollars, euros and pounds instead of imparting quality education to the Pakistanis. Most of these foreign qualified PhDs are absolutely useless. Recommend

  • Truth_Prevails
    Jun 19, 2011 - 4:20PM

    @Mooed: Ahhh! I don’t know how to say it but as a minimum, “don’t comment on something that you have no clue about! Please!”Recommend

  • Truth_Prevails
    Jun 19, 2011 - 4:21PM

    @Tariq: Hey you are one of those who couldn’t make it to the merit list? Aren’t you? Moral of the story “Grapes are sour”Recommend

  • Tariq
    Jun 19, 2011 - 6:47PM

    @Truth_Prevails:
    No offense but I did not have to wait for charity money to complete my education. My family paid for my master’s while I worked as a TA during my Ph.D. Moreover, I could have made it to the merit list whenever I wanted especially when HEC was offering scholarships in clearance sale.
    It hurts when I see public funds of this poor country be squandered to get a PhD for some useless person. Recommend

  • Usman
    Jun 20, 2011 - 7:03AM

    Some PhD thesis that I have seen contain nothing but mere explanation of the subject. There is nothing new and surprisingly a PhD has been awarded on those thesis. These thesis are from some of the major foreign universities. Recommend

  • Rao Amjad Ali
    Jun 21, 2011 - 12:43PM

    As a key member of Musharraf’s Fiefdom who gave him a free hand to do as he pleased with the so called higher education of Pakistan, Dr. Rehman did not deviate as many who came before him and served the dictator with unflinching loyalty, not necessarily the cause of education. Surely, HEC’s cry for more money does not merit consideration. Let’s see why.

    Countries like Cuba, India, Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia who took decades to successfully employ sequenced and rational educational development programs, HEC attempted to achieve in just a few years. With friends in high places, Dr. Rehman got plenty of government and donor money which was spent in haste as the speed of implementation took precedence over the need for rigorous analysis of the sub-national educational value chains.

    The result was not terribly unpredictable, doctoral candidates ran amok, many more went to Podunck than to Princeton and without exaggeration several of them now armed with PhD degrees cannot comprehend a journal article from their own specialty area.

    The Commission and its head apparently did not recognize a fact all too well known among international development experts that there is a remarkable distinction between OUTCOME and IMPACT.

    While the outcome was visibly impressive as scores of PhDs began to loiter the halls of fly-by-night colleges and universities that had begun to mushroom, the impact as Pervez Hoodhboy noted in an article a few years ago remains dismal and a downward trajectory that has since been set into motion is fraught with danger.

    The challenge is that Pakistan has half-baked doctors of philosophy producing sub-standard mostly poorly supervised work in colleges and universities that do not have a raison d’etre. And the opportunity cost exacted by HEC on resource dry government coffers on flimsy educational projects has diverted monies that could have arguably ensured far better returns on investment in primary and secondary education.

    Does anyone know if the framers of HEC adequately addressed the key question: whether an archaic school system that grew out of the industrial revolution ought to have been logically expected to lead to quality higher education that is supposed to meet the demands of the information age?

    In my judgment, it is reasonable to assume that had a rigorous and an inclusive debate, discussion and analysis of this core question taken place, HEC would have probably had to significantly modify its mandate and plan of action, giving way perhaps to greater outlays on modern teacher education and transformation of religious schools and seminaries.Recommend

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