Universities: telling the good from the bad

Published: February 12, 2012
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The writer currently teaches physics and political science at LUMS (Lahore). He taught at Quaid-i-Azam University for 36 years and was head of the physics department.

The writer currently teaches physics and political science at LUMS (Lahore). He taught at Quaid-i-Azam University for 36 years and was head of the physics department.

Grading universities is not an easy task. As in a beauty contest, opinions and tastes count. But the task is important because universities, which seek students and funds, are nowadays aggressively advertising themselves. One hears some rather astonishing, even bizarre, claims. Ranger-guarded Karachi University — which resembles more a detention camp than a university — allegedly belongs to the world’s top 200 universities. Whoever believes this must also believe in tooth fairies.

There are even stranger beliefs. Last April, the Quaid-i-Azam University administration proudly announced that the QS World University Ranking Body had placed QAU as 69th among the world’s top 100 universities. QS had lauded QAU’s publications in “mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering”. But QAU’s chest-thumping in the public media abruptly ended aftersomeone pointed out that QAU did not have any engineering departments. After QS admitted to a typographical mistake, QAU responded that it deserved to be highly rated anyway!

Of course, fighting for university rankings happens across the world. It costs littleto make one’s own criteria and then claim excellence. For example, the University of Jammu in Kashmir and Universiti Teknologi Mara in Malaysia, stake their claim to fame on the basis of certification from the International Standards Organization (ISO) — a dubious proposition because ISO merely looks at the adequacy of procedural and management processes. Reflecting the intrinsic subjectivity, the widely-quoted top-500 list of the Times Higher Education Supplement (UK) is somewhat different from that of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The lack of strict objectivity means unhealthy practices are possible. In Pakistan, the Higher Education Commission chose to define academic excellence as primarily determined by the number of research papers (rather than their impact upon a field) produced by a university. The consequences have been horrendous.

Pakistan’s university teachers and researchers have roughly the same ethical standards as its politicians, generals, judges, and shopkeepers. Hiding in the shadows is even easier because it is hard for non-academics to tell the difference between trivial and significant works. So once the PCST and HEC announced cash awards and other perks, almost overnight a research-poor country started producing a bumper crop of “research articles” year after year. The HEC claimed victory but many papers were tired repetitions, contained fake data, were plagiarised, or published in fly-by-night journals. Dr Isa Daudpota, an intrepid academic trouble-shooter has, over the years, documented the academic sleaze. Such stark evidence has, unfortunately, had scant effect upon the HEC.

While a healthy scepticism of university ratings is perfectly justified,telling good universities from bad ones is certainly not ahopeless task – at least at a basic level.

Here is how it could be done in principle: take students studying similar subjects at University X and University Y. Have them write the same essay, or solve the same textbook problems in science or math. Better still, they could be required to take credible (national or international) examinations. Let neutral referees then compare the results, and also judge which set of studentscan articulate their thoughts better. Repeat this procedure with teachers at X and Y. Since a university is made of students and teachers, this allows for a straightforward academic comparison of X with Y.

Without such basic competencies, it is all pointless. Sadly, there are quite a few Pakistani universities where competencies are in short supply. Surely there is little to be gained from a department of English where the department’s head cannot speak or write a grammatically correct non-trivial sentence of English; a physics department where the head is confused about the operation of an incandescent light bulb; a mathematics department where graduate students have problems with elementary surds and roots; or a biology department where evolution is thought to be new-fangled and quite unnecessary to teach as part of modern biology. A thousand ‘internationally published’ papers, or putting lighted signboards of an alleged “centre of excellence” makes not the slightest bit of difference.

Many universities — those that have crossed the stage of basic competencies — will want to walk the catwalk. What guidelines should be given to the judges of thisveritable beauty contest? Towards this end, with the hope of creating a yardstick, let us imagine something that doesn’t exist anywhere — a hypothetical ‘ideal university’. This university should be the absolute best that you can imagine. Here is what it should look like.

First, the ideal university should be a bastion of critical inquiry covering every conceivable field of human endeavour. It has first-rate faculty that does first-rate research on super-massive black holes and discovers new extra-solar planets, figures out quantum computation and the folding of proteins, documents the mating habits of macaws and tarantulas, and deciphers the extinct languages of Sumeria and Mesopotamia. The professors are widely cited and known for important discoveries. Their fame attracts talented researchers and students from across the world. Academic and cultural freedom is crucial. Unless authority and conventional wisdom can be challenged, one cannot have meaningful research and teaching of history, art, politics, and the social sciences. This freedom is important for the entire university culture.

Our ideal university also spawns high-tech companies that create more powerful computers and data compression techniques. It generates products and ideas upon which the progress and survival of civilisations depends, such as new crop varieties and renewable energy sources. It also does a splendid job at training engineers, doctors, economists, business managers, and other professionals.

Most importantly — this ideal university creates a modern citizenry capable of responsible and reasoned decision making. Its graduates can think independently and scientifically, have an understanding of history and culture, can create discourses on social and political issues, and are capable of coherent expression in speech and writing. They are in demand everywhere — both in academia and industry — nationally and internationally.

A tall order indeed! Even Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and Sorbonne are poor approximations. But a university does not have to be of the highest order in order to be useful. Having a forward-looking worldview, a spirit of inquiry, an open environment, good ethical standards, a sense of collegiality, a shared sense of purpose, and good governance practices is plenty for a good starting point. That a handful of Pakistani universities, public and private, seem earnest about getting on to this track is heartening. The challenge is to get the reluctant majority on board.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (32)

  • Feb 12, 2012 - 9:49PM

    Universities in Pakistan are extensions of schooling. Parents, teachers, students, all treat it that way. The “brand” is important, but given too much emphasis. That of course is the consequence of preferences of the labour market and public perception. Universities polish students through experiences and broadening horizons. A comparison between university students in Pakistan is not fair, given that the best universities (in most cases) attract the best students, who have access to better schools, teachers, tutors, life experiences etc. That is the case across the globe. Until we create an environment where education is valued in itself, rather than a means to an end, we will remain fixated with rankings, which then students, teachers and administrators are more than happy to perpetuate.Recommend

  • Riaz Khan
    Feb 12, 2012 - 9:50PM

    Excellent article!

    Recommend

  • Saleem Chaudhry
    Feb 12, 2012 - 10:41PM

    Also good universities produce job creaters and bad universities produce job seekers.

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  • Feb 12, 2012 - 10:59PM

    Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy – one of the best writers on ET I think. Always sensible. Loved reading it.

    Recommend

  • White Russian
    Feb 12, 2012 - 11:18PM

    When Prof Attaurehman was busy formulating and implementing higher education policies during last decade, it was easier to silence his critics with endless tirades of sophistry. But a decade later, perhaps it is time to evaluate his policies purely on the basis of results.

    Sadly, his critics sound more and more convincing every passing day.

    Recommend

  • Feb 12, 2012 - 11:29PM

    Students, please read every word of what Dr. Hoodbhoy writes. You’ll thank yourself later.

    Recommend

  • AM
    Feb 12, 2012 - 11:35PM

    An excellent article. ET editors should be more careful though. The typos are very annoying.

    Recommend

  • Feb 12, 2012 - 11:37PM

    Nice article but i would just like to add that all faults lie at semester system.
    Jumping from Year system to semester system way back in 2000, we are never able to transform ourself to any proper system according to our needs. Second semester system has helped faculty members to produce research work but with less constraints on teachers, quality of teaching and standard of students also have come down, which need to be address.

    @admin: Please do not remove the link
    http://semester-system-pakistan.blogspot.com/

    Recommend

  • guest
    Feb 13, 2012 - 12:15AM

    golden words: “Pakistan’s university teachers and researchers have roughly the same ethical standards as its politicians, generals, judges, and shopkeepers.”Recommend

  • Usman
    Feb 13, 2012 - 12:48AM

    A quality article as usual by Prof. Hoodbhoy, however I do want to point out that university rankings are perceptive everywhere. In the west, most rankings are based on surveys of students, faculties, alumnis and business communities which too is not the best gauge of measuring university success at preparing professionals of tomorrow. To me, the key figures would be to see the quality of university’s intake of students i.e. the academic competitiveness of students that are offered admissions, the percentage that actually accept offers, percentage of students employed after graduation and related statistics.

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  • Feb 13, 2012 - 12:56AM

    I been to an engineering university in Pakistan, and a foreign university as well, and in my view if you are there to get into job market then universities are not the only way. It is better to pass industry oriented certifications to get into job market then again if you do not have a life you work hard and you will make more money than others. Universities are great places to socialize though. Frankly ethics has little to do with universities.

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  • Parvez
    Feb 13, 2012 - 1:10AM

    Great article, always learn something from reading you.
    To have a great university you must first and foremost have the funding to make it so, without money nothing happens.

    Recommend

  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Feb 13, 2012 - 5:42AM

    All good Pakistani university talk is rubbish…how many Nobel laureates you produce every decade? None…Salam was an exception, taught in England. What new technologies you develop for the world and apply them in your country? None. The only Nobel laureate in Pakistan was even barred from openning a Physics Institution, meant for students from developing countries.

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  • muhammad irfan
    Feb 13, 2012 - 7:40AM

    i agree with imran .

    Recommend

  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Feb 13, 2012 - 8:51AM

    Professor Hoodbhoy has touched upon some aspects of Pakistani society’s deep rooted hpocrisy. Pakistani society wants to appear good, but does not act by doing the hard work to become good. Same stands for the universities. I can count best of the students of my generation and my class fellows, who all left Pakistan. Most of them pursued higher education and excelled in life. They acquired good education from western countries by studying more they in fact became useless for Pakistan, as there is no infrastructure to assmilate them. So even if some universities are good enough with some stretched and twisted yardsticks, they are not good enough to advance the cause of Pakistan’s development.

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  • Apostate
    Feb 13, 2012 - 9:49AM

    Arabic culture that Mullahs want Pakistani’s to adopt and Islam that they want people to follow do not allow critical inquiry, most critical element for progressive thinking.

    Recommend

  • Alla Uddin Bacer
    Feb 13, 2012 - 10:05AM

    DR sb your observation is always at highest.

    Recommend

  • Feb 13, 2012 - 11:38AM

    Well done I have read you first time, congrats you have impressed me and I am glad we have you to atleast write and advocate the issues of students or those who are opting for masters. Your provided link will provide an additional help out in future.

    Recommend

  • Pappo Piplia
    Feb 13, 2012 - 12:47PM

    Pakistan is a farming country, we don’t need education.Recommend

  • Khan Jr
    Feb 13, 2012 - 1:56PM

    @Pappo Piplia
    You are so right! Our illiteracy will help us forget our poor crop yields and poor farming methods.

    Recommend

  • frank
    Feb 13, 2012 - 4:21PM

    This is the first article by Peraiz Hoodhboy that i have liked. Recommend

  • NH
    Feb 13, 2012 - 7:51PM

    Fair points raised by Dr. PH. However I would like to add that a university is an extension of your secondary and higher secondary educational system. Unless we redesign that system on the basis of understanding rather than ‘ratta fication’, hoping for a world class, highly ranked university is would remain a dream.

    Recommend

  • Subah
    Feb 13, 2012 - 7:52PM

    Great work Sir. Lot of effort needed in the field of education and writing and bringing awareness among the mass is a great job. We lack dedication to every good profession…same is in the field of education. The plight of schools, the basis of further education, the foundation itself is wavering badly. Lots of effort needed from grass root level….or trickle down from above. Which ever way we choose, it should be for the good of our educational institutions.

    Recommend

  • anonymus
    Feb 13, 2012 - 8:33PM

    @Nadir El-Edroos:

    A comparison between university students in Pakistan is not fair, given that the best universities (in most cases) attract the best students, who have access to better schools, teachers, tutors, life experiences etc. That is the case across the globe

    That is exacrly happening across pakistan. Good students bring good results.

    Author is right on every thing. incharges of HEC /were/are picked because former has same skin color like mush and current one was form PPP. they may be qualified enough but their appointmets were not transparent and by international search method. In universities in USA even heads of dpartments come after national search.

    keep it on Dr HoodbhoyRecommend

  • Bilal
    Feb 13, 2012 - 9:43PM

    Good universities test don’t get leaked. #LUMS

    Recommend

  • Dan
    Feb 13, 2012 - 10:14PM

    This is a master piece.

    Recommend

  • Muhammad Ikram
    Feb 13, 2012 - 10:39PM

    In Pakistan the research claiming promoting funding institutes based on racism as I not see any justice regarding providing research facilities amongst universities in different province. If a university doesn’t afford even the salary of the faculties and even a chairs and white board to teach students then how you can, anticipate quality of research or any comparison between universities students in Pakistan.

    Recommend

  • Homa
    Feb 13, 2012 - 10:45PM

    This conception of “the university” is based on a blended, american liberal arts college/ research institution ideal. A higher ed education system in a third world, strife torn country like pakistan however will be fertile in these objectives only if it is rooted in and draws from a healthy globalized transcultural ethos instead of an islamically oriented local sociocultural framework.

    Recommend

  • Raja Rameez
    Feb 14, 2012 - 9:13AM

    I think Prof. Hoodbhoy has proposed a rather nice criteria for university ranking. He, however, has not mentioned the trick played by most of the private universities. They simply hire only one or two productive researchers (mostly fluid dynamics-mathematicians ) to give them boost in number of publications. University however stay the same i.e. poor in teaching and research.

    Recommend

  • Cynical
    Feb 15, 2012 - 3:13PM

    @frank

    “This is the first article by Peraiz Hoodhboy that i have liked.”
    Thank god for small mercies.

    Recommend

  • TRY
    Feb 18, 2012 - 2:00AM

    flowery article from some one who should be proposing identifiable and PRACTICAL policies!! HEC was from Pakistani standards atleast was a better filtering system on grassroots, could have been better organised/and given real direction over time. Since when has any Pakistani erudite or similar group has actually AGREED on an organised education system of the highest quality with a solution? does even mr hoodbhoy have a consensus amongst his own colleagues on the definitions and practical translations of “Having a forward-looking worldview, investigative, open environment, good ethical standards, a sense of collegiality, a shared sense of purpose, and good governance practices”? i doubt it! one should put out a solution rather than just point out problems through generalized observations cos that even we (THE LESS LITERATE) can do!

    Recommend

  • Dinar Wali
    Mar 19, 2012 - 11:37AM

    fascinating Article; each word of this article is golden word I would say. This article truly reflect the decay of our universities, indeed our professors and researchers has the same ethical standards as our Politicians, Generals, Judges and shopkeepers.

    Recommend

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