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More degrees, more problems?

More than a 1,000 PhDs are currently jobless amidst nepotism-based hirings and HEC’s apathy

By Shazia Mehboob |
PUBLISHED March 21, 2021

While the public sector universities are running short of qualified staff, ‘politically-motivated’ hiring processes have left hundreds of PhD scholars jobless. This is due in large part to the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) lack of power to bind higher education institutions to regularise jobs of its qualified candidates after their interim placement.

“During my one-year job under the HEC interim placement programme, along with teaching courses to students at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) Multan, despite having won two research projects for the university and publishing a research paper in a well-reputed international research journal, my performance was not good enough to have impressed the management enough for regularising my position,” said Dr Abaid Ullah.

Dr Abaid is the winner of an HEC indigenous scholarship along with a six months foreign research fellowship in Vienna, Austria. The microbiologist, who completed his interim placement in 2016, has been struggling to secure a job at a permanent faculty in any university of Pakistan.

The young PhD scholar says that he spared no job opportunity in any university of Pakistan but his outstanding educational career and professional expertise was not enough to impress people sitting in the academia sector.

It is important to mention here that Dr Abaid Ullah was awarded with a letter of appreciation by BZU Multan for his outstanding performance during his one-year interim placement.

“I was excited as I thought that the letter of appreciation would be helpful in strengthening my position for a permanent faculty position as per the HEC set criteria but the varsity took three years to advertise jobs,” the botanist deplored.

“Even the varsity took three years gap to advertise jobs. I applied for all the subjects which were relevant to my areas of specialisation and paid a handsome amount as registration fee just because I didn’t want to miss any chance of getting hired. After the deadline line of registration is over, when I approached the varsity to get an update, I was told that the hiring had been postponed due to the death of the varsity vice chancellor,” he added.

Abaid belongs to a salaried-class family and could not afford paying the hefty registration fee yet after taking a loan from a colleague he paid then. Despite financial constraints, he repeated a similar approach for the next two jobs announcements at BZU as well.

For the second announcement, he was on the top of the candidates list but the varsity suspended the hiring process again on the pretext of changes in the hiring strategy. And the third time, the varsity dropped his name from the list raising objection over relevancy of his degree, the young scholar maintained.

Despite submitting the HEC certificate of relevancy against the objection, the management maintained its objection, even in its response to a letter of question dispatched by the Prime Minister’s Citizen Portal team after he registered a complaint against the varsity for using delaying tactics against his hiring.

The jobless scholar says the faculty members at BZU Multan are overburdened due to high number of students and low ratio of teachers, adding that the varsity has various vacant posts which can accommodate many jobless PhD scholars to ensure a teacher-student ratio of 1:20 as per the HEC policy. However, despite that, their hirings have been few and those too have been nepotism-based rather than merit-related.

Abaid said that despite his specialisation in the relevant subject and research experience consistent with the job advertisement, Islamia University Bahawalpur (IUB) had also turned him down twice for different positions.

Later, Abaid said that he learned from varsity sources that he could not be hired because the advertised position was already given to another candidate with strong political connections.

Dr Abaid said that he was working for COMSATS University Islamabad under a research project but the university not only separated him from the project after availing his services for eight months but didn’t pay his salary either.

Irks of Jobless Scholars

“I was on the top of the candidates’ list in Kohat University of Science and Technology and was also serving there as teaching faculty under HEC interim placement yet the varsity ultimately chose to hire of an unqualified candidate because of his political connections,” said Dr Muhammad Imran.

“The candidate had done MPhil while the post requirement was a PhD degree,” he added.

Imran went through a similar experience at the University of Balochistan where he said that he was on the top of the candidates list but the hiring board in the end, preferred the induction of a son of the varsity vice chancellor instead.

Dr Imran has done PhD in Pharmacology from Tehran, on full scholarship. He has also won two international awards for his research work.

After completing his research work in 2015, he started searching for good job opportunities in Pakistani universities but according to him, the ‘corrupt and political system’ didn’t allow his entry.

The HEC is nothing more than a redundant body now as it has no control over academia but over poor PhDs holders, Adnan said, adding that no Pakistani university follows the hiring standards set by the HEC.

Dr Tariq Aziz, a jobless scholar from Faisalabad said that he was about to complete his research work some four years back when he had approached the HEC for his placement as he wanted to translate his foreign research experiences into local market value without wasting any time but the higher education authority could not make his placement in the past four years.

Dr Aziz has done his PhD in Agronomy from Ondokuz Mayıs University Samsun-Turkey on an open merit scholarship.

“The higher education authority is not only responsible to put the system on fast-track but to ensure transparency and merit in the hiring process but both requirements demand a dedicated and highly motivated team, which is unfortunately not available currently,” Dr Aziz deplored.

Dr Adnan, another PhD scholar, said the higher authority should stop its PhD programme until it doesn’t ensure induction of all job seeking qualified scholars. Irked by the politically influenced system, he also advised the PhD aspirants to not opt for higher studies until the state doesn't introduce a transparent hiring process in the country.

Dr Tayyaba Batool, who has done an Instructional Design and Technology degree from Old Dominion University Norfolk VA, USA said that as she did not have a relevancy certificate, her application was rejected wherever she applied for a job. She has been trying to get the relevancy certificate from HEC but so far she has been unsuccessful.

One of her colleagues, who was in the same batch, with a specialisation in Instructional Design and Technology has received equivalence certificate from HEC and only because his degree title was not PhD but EDD.

If EDD is equivalent to a PhD then what is the issue? She questioned. She has also lodged a complaint with the citizen's portal but in vain.

Dr Batool while deploring the higher education authority for its failure to implement its policies asked if the education ministry and its designated authority are not obliged to craft such policies that can translate into job market values then which designated authority is there to approach for their problems?

A politically influenced hiring practice

Dr Aziz said securing a position in university is an easy task for those who have good references with people associated in academia sector, adding that getting a job in university is a herculean task for those who don’t have such references.

“If you are a relative or a son or a daughter of a university professor or a member of university administration, your hiring is confirmed as soon as you complete your degree. It doesn’t even matter if that degree is from a low quality university,” he added.

“An approach-based system is a major obstacle hampering merit-based hiring of PhD degree holders in universities,” said Dr Adnan, adding that the ‘corrupt and political system’ and incompetency of the HEC has only exacerbated their troubles. He has done PhD in analytical chemistry under the HEC indigenous scholarship programme, and since 2014, he is struggling to secure a faculty position in universities.

Dissatisfied with his professional growth, Dr Adnan said that the TTS system takes years to promote candidates, adding that he has already wasted five precious years of his career in looking for jobs.

The young PhD scholar said that he had a job offered at the university in the United States where he completed his research work under the HEC scholarship programme for PhDs but he preferred to serve his country.

“There is a lot of space in universities and all jobless PhDs can get regular positions if the HEC takes concerted measures,” Dr Adnan maintained. “There are at least 10 permanent positions lying vacant in the university where I am teaching as visiting faculty and if the varsity fills its vacant posts all visiting faculty members could be regularised.”

Dr Samina, another job-seeking PhD scholar said despite the universities being bound to hire permanent faculty under the HEC set rules, they are promoting the culture of visiting faculty.

She said that senior faculty are afraid of hiring fresh candidates due to their exposure to latest techniques and equipment.

The permanent faculty wants to maintain its monopoly to earn money both as regular faculty in the morning and visiting faculty in the evening, Dr Samina said. Dr Samina has also availed foreign research fellowship to Vienna, Austria in 2014. She has been jobless since she completed her interim placement in a local university.

Dr Madiha Yasir, completed her PhD from University of Technology Petronas, Malaysia in October 2017 by availing the university’s scholarship as graduate assistantship. “There must be proper rules and regulations that without a proper number of faculties no universities should be allowed to start taking admissions,” she said.

“Actually rules exist but universities use their references with HEC and bypass the rules,” said Dr Yasir, adding that the system must be monitored.

Dr Yasir was teaching in a campus of University of Central Punjab (UCP) as a visiting faculty. She said the campus has few regular faculty members and the rest are visiting like her. She applied in several universities but only few sent her interview letters and never received a job confirmation letter.

Recalling one such job opportunity, she said that she was about to receive an appointment letter from Riphah International University Gujrat but her hiring couldn’t get approval from the HEC for some reason. She said the managements in many universities when she asked for reasons for her rejection said that hiring needs strong reference which doesn’t hold.

Dr Rukhsana Shah, another jobless PhD, said it is a collective responsibility of all stakeholders to take measures. “There is a need to design the areas of specialization, which not only translate into local market values but international as well. What kind of market value is needed if the concern authority doesn’t address the issue? Our issue of joblessness cannot be resolved,” said Dr Shah.

Many protests but no results

“Around 200 of us PhDs scholars have staged protests outside the HEC office and PM Imran Khan’s Bani Gala Residence to bring our problem into the knowledge of the government and the higher education authority but to no avail,” said Dr Sher Afzal, another job seeking scholar.

After every protest, they were invited for a meeting and promised by HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Imran Khan on Political Affairs (late) Naeemul Haque that their issues would be resolved, “But they never met their promises,” said Dr Afzal.

Dr Banuri had also assured them that the HEC will take concrete steps not only to ensure the implementation of its policy in letter and spirit, but to improve the quality of research in universities, he recalled their negotiations at the end of every protest.

“Unfortunately the HEC neither addressed our problems nor could ensure implementation of its policy regarding teacher-student ratio of 1:20,” said Dr Afzal.

Late Haque had also assured them that he would arrange their meeting with Prime Minister Khan but all his assurances proved hollow as he didn't even move their file to the premier.

Dr Afzal said that they also held a meeting with Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood to bring their problems to his knowledge but he straightforwardly refused to take any responsibility and said, “it’s not the government’s responsibility to arrange jobs for PhD holders.”

Why was the HEC established?

The HEC was established during Pervez Musharraf regime in 2002 to improve the quality of higher education and to meet the requirements of the country’s higher education institutions as the state was facing a shortage of over 3,800 PhDs.

Different programmes such as the initiation of indigenous and overseas PhD scholarships programmes were announced and links were established with top 100 universities in the world to send PhD scholars for training. One year internship programmes were also set up for PhDs in local universities in order to ensure immediate induction of fresh PhDs under TTS from HEC.

The HEC, through an agreement, also bounded these PhDs scholars that they would be required to return to the country and serve for five years in local universities.

The commission also established a consensus with the public sector universities all over Pakistan for one-year interim placement, making them bound to hire PhDs as permanent faculty members within the year of their internship.

However, deep-rooted and systematic university corruption as well systematic ineptitude of the HEC has only led to the creation of jobless PhDs. Currently according to the documents available with the PhD Doctors Association (PDA), there are around 1,200 jobless PhDs in the country. Of which, 50 per cent have availed HEC indigenous scholarships and the remaining 50 per cent have done their PhDs from abroad on open merit scholarships.

Vice President Inter-universities Consortium Murtaza Noor says that due to the financial crisis, many Pakistani universities are facing difficulties in hiring qualified PhD holder faculty. “The association of PhD degree holders’ doctors has raised the issue of placement of PhDs so many times,” he said. Talking about qualified faculty in universities, he said, “We have less than 30 per cent PhD holder faculty.”

Noor however refuted the notion that hirings take place based on nepotism. “I don’t see political influence in the hiring process as mostly appointments are made by the selection board consisting of relevant academics,” he said.

He however added, “There should be a comprehensive policy for the earliest placement of PhD scholars both at a federal and provincial level through a transparent and merit-based mechanism.”

In conversation with HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri

What is HEC’s role as a regulatory body?

“A teacher-student ratio of 1:5 is necessary for a permission to start a PhD programme. If a university violates this requirement, they are forbidden from admitting students into the programme. Admissions have been stopped in a number of programmes, in which universities were not able to maintain these targets. However, the teacher-student ratio is not the only determinant of quality

Is there political influence in the hiring process?

A vast majority of such complaints are made only about public sector universities. These universities are subject to their legislative charters, under which these decisions are made by the statutory bodies, namely syndicates, senates, and governing boards, and reviewed by chancellors. This is a core element of university autonomy, and HEC has no intention of setting up a parallel recruitment system or undermining university autonomy.

However, if a problem is brought to HEC's attention, we try to involve the statutory bodies, both to resolve the grievance and strengthen university autonomy. We have also established grievance resolution committees to resolve outstanding complaints.

In any case, public sector universities are public institutions and it is the media’s responsibility to publicise any problematic decisions.

Is there a saturation of PhDs in certain fields?

There is much speculation on this issue but no concrete evidence of saturation in any field is available. There are vacancies in every single field.

HEC requires universities to assess market demand for postgraduate degree programmes before submitting applications for NOCs. HEC is also collecting information on the jobs situation in order to provide guidance to prospective students in this regard.

The decision whether or not to pursue a particular academic programme can be made only by the student, himself or herself. A PhD is not a pedestrian degree; it should only be pursued if someone wants to add to the state of knowledge in a particular subject.

Only the student would know whether they are excited about the questions raised by a particular discipline. If they are not excited by these questions, it will be impossible for them to succeed in the field. HEC's philosophy is to treat students as adults, and trust them to make the right judgment. The only programmes that HEC will ban are those that are lacking in quality.

It is not HEC's role to deprive the students of their own right to make decisions. The only programmes that will be shut down are those that are lacking in quality. There is no saturation as far as high quality programmes are concerned.

Has the HEC failed to accommodate PhD holders?

Of the 550 PhDs, who applied for the IPFP placement, the number of HEC scholars returning from abroad is close to zero. The others either got their PhDs from Pakistan or studied on other scholarships. There is no intention to review the five-year rule.

The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and a PhD aspirant. She tweets @shizrehman