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.