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Caught in policy schizophrenia

Since the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was founded in 2002, they have every so often changed their policies

By Yusra Salim |
PUBLISHED March 24, 2021

Since the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was founded in 2002, they have every so often changed their policies. This in turn, has resulted in setting off a chain reaction of confusion among students as well as institutes.

The most recent announcement – that students who have completed a BS programme, which makes a total of 16 years of education, are eligible for PhD programmes – has kicked off both lengthy debates and a cold war between the federal body and universities. Neither universities nor HEC itself seems to be clear as to what programmes are still continuing or which are being closed down.

Sharing the idea behind the introduction of this new policy, HEC’s Director General of the Human Resource development, Aayesha Ikram told me, “HEC would like to encourage the best students to enroll in PhD programmes, and build an integrated programme to groom them for future academic leadership. This is why the previous split programme (MS followed by PhD) has been replaced with a single integrated programme.”

“The eligibility does not entitle admission but merely opens a pathway for admission to the exceptional BS graduates,” she said. “Further, the criteria for admission to a PhD programme is laid down by the faculty and they will determine whether an applicant with a BS degree meets the admission criteria or not.”

“PhD studies require sustained mentoring and those who wish to do an MS programme first and continue Phd may do so and now BS graduates may also apply for admission to PhD directly,” she added. “If they are good enough to pass the rigorous admission criteria they will be selected. This is in line with global practice that allows any student with demonstrated academic and research ability to be eligible for admission in a PhD programme.”

Credit hours and international transfers

The recent policy change has raised many questions including credit hours. What if any student wants to leave in between or how will the credit hours be completed in a minimum of three years? The given timeline from the HEC is minimum three years and maximum eight years, which can later be extending for two more years. The increased credit hours for students joining PhD programmes straight after completing their BS programme, have to complete 48 credit hours to complete their degree.

Responding to how the credit hours be utilised, Ikram said, “The hours are a requirement and specific guidelines are being prepared at the moment. In their absence, the previous policy is to be followed. While the academic standing of MS or MPhil degrees remains unchanged. Students can enter job market and also apply for PhD and get partial credit for this.”

Under the new policy, of the eligibility change is effective from January 1, 2021. The international acceptability of graduate course credits earned in Pakistan, each institute will make decisions about transfer of credits on a case by case basis. If Masters is done in Pakistan, they will get credits transferred but in case of foreign universities, it will differ from university to university.

Students’ despair

“I was admitted into an MPhil programme in 2016 and due to the uncertainty of the situation, I am not able to submit my synopsis till date and the year I was admitted we were not eligible for MPhil leading to PhD due to changes in the policy,” shared Umair*, a student enrolled in University of Karachi. The student, who graduated at the top of his MA course in Mass Communication and won a gold medal, said that HEC’s continuous changes in policies every two to three years is making difficult for students to decide and plan their goals. “I could have done PhD by now if this policy or at least an MPhil leading to PhD would have been allowed earlier at the time I was enrolled,” Umair lamented.

“Even university administration do not properly guide their students correctly in such circumstances,” he said. “One has to keep running between departments to get things done and complete his or her MPhil programme.”

Another student, Sarah*, who was enrolled in MPhil last year shared how difficult it is to get enrolled in MPhil and majority complete 18 years of education so that they can get enrolled in PhD programmes but the policy and rules war between universities and federal regulatory body makes it difficult for students. “How can someone who has completed 16 years of education and someone who has completed 18 years of education be equal?” she said while adding, “These regulatory bodies have made a joke out of students and their efforts. They need to realise that not everyone wants to move out of Pakistan or can even afford to do so.”

Universities’ stance

“It is totally unacceptable that two year’s MPhil is not necessary to apply for PhD programme,” said Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association’s (FAPUASA) representative Shakeel Faruqi.

The whole idea of forming HEC was to make Pakistan’s education system research-oriented and when it was established it was to be followed on the American system with Masters to be completed at 18 years of education.

Initially, teachers association and FAPUASA tried really hard to stop any such confusion and wanted the HEC to accept the conversion to degrees but the HEC was adamant and did not agree on this conversion and demanded MS or MPhil only to be eligible for PhD.

“What they have come up with recently is very surprising as now they have made students of BS to be eligible for PhD programs. HEC itself seems confuseed and crazy because it looks like they themselves don’t know what they are doing or want to do,” said Faruqi angrily.

Sharing his personal experience when he was applying for a doctorate at an American University, he said that there was some initial hurdles that he faced in terms of credit transference but his professor ultimately wrote a letter to the university which clearly stated the credit hours he had completed and after which his doctorate school accepted 30 credit hours from his Msc course in genetics.

“But since HEC has made its obscure rules, the world doesn’t accept MSc as a Masters course and the Pakistani Masters programme seems something lesser than the world’s master’s program,” he added.

“Also, the number of PhD students and their work is not helping Pakistan in any way. The quality of research and work which is happening here is mostly substandard and of no use,” he said. “Such laws and rules in doctorate and acceptance of the world has made mediocrity a new normal in Pakistan.”

“The BS programme, which is acceptable by the world but in Pakistan majority of the market wasn’t accepting it in the first place and also comparing BS to BSc, BCom or any such 14-year education degree. The change created confusion and several students decided to go back to BA hons or BSc hons from BS programs,” he said. “To ease out their confusion and problems the university administrations decided to offer conversion of degrees and students can decide what degree they want to attain but even with that each department had to run three degrees simultaneously which is why general universities stopped taking admissions in BS and went back to admission in BA (Hons) and BSc hons.”

Founder and first chairman of HEC, Dr Ata-ur-Rahman told The Express Tribune, “Pakistan has international standards and our students want to work on such standards, the issue is that the BSc program is not taken seriously internationally due to the lack of a systematic education system.” He further shares that the basic idea was to start and follow the bologna protocol of higher education. “When we started BS which was equivalent to 16 years of education a lot of universities started violating the rule and started offering parallel degrees,” he concluded.

But how will the province’s biggest state university deal with the issues faced by its students? The Vice Chancellor of the University of Karachi, Dr Khalid Iraqi while talking to The Express Tribune said, “The new PhD policy will be adopted by the varsity after formal analysis, reviews and approval or deliberation from statutory bodies which includes academic council, syndicate, board of studies and faculty.”

“The matter will be decided after final deliberations with the Government of Sindh and the office of secretary universities and boards with formal strategies and academic planning as the universities comes under provincial government,” he said. “All such matters are includes legislation and also have consequences, which is why the university cannot take or reject any decision all alone.”

Responding to an inquiry about how the credit hours will be compensated in the programme, Dr Iraqi said, “The credit hours policy is pre-defined. However, it can be upgraded according to the new given policy by the HEC for PhD. Also, the University of Karachi announces PhD admissions twice a year, which already reflects increase in the number of admission or seats at the varsity. Increase in numbers of seats means requirement of more funds and after the eligibility criteria changed to BS programme, the number of students applying for PhD will increase eventually and to run such programmes, more funding will also be needed,” he said. “HEC is not providing any grant for research fund right now. At least 1 billion must be granted every year till 2026 for the formal strengthening of this programme,” he added.

To clear the air whether this new policy will make any impact on the importance of both the degrees, he said that there will be no impact as the credit hours will increase for students joining after completing their BS programme. “The importance of M.Phil. or MS remains unchanged as per the International QAA Standards,” he said.