Dr Adil Najam, the vice chancellor of LUMS has raised an important issue on the quality of higher education in an interview with this newspaper “Quality education to drive Pakistan forward: LUMS VC” (March 28). He was, however, less convincing in contending that the issue of plagiarism was being addressed by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). There is, as he put it, “a stream of PhDs (irrespective of their quality) returning to the country.” The major contribution to this stream has also been made by the HEC in the choice of institutions abroad and the selection of candidates. The HEC incentives structure contradicts its own policy of producing better quality PhDs within the country. There should be a proper assessment of both foreign and local PhDs.
An unplagiarised thesis can still be of very poor quality. Turnitin, the plagiarism-detection software applied by the HEC, only detects similarity of the text. There are now, in fact, softwares available for paraphrasing, which rewrite a document in a way that the chances of detection by Turnitin are reduced. The significance of the problem being researched, the appropriateness of the methodology used and the logical connectedness of the argument must be judged by human beings, not by softwares. While the drive to do original work has to come from the supervisee, there is no better judge of quality than the supervisor. If the supervisee’s work were to be of original and sound quality, then they are unlikely to feel the need to plagiarise. Next, comes the examiners’ judgment regarding the suitability of the thesis to receive award for a research degree. The examiners also have to be competent and chosen with utmost care. The HEC has laid down the criteria for examiners to choose local PhDs, but it has no say in the matter of these examinations. In the end, it is not just the supervisee, but also the supervisor who should be held responsible for the quality of work produced.
A lot more remains to be done on the effectiveness of the HEC’s anti-plagiarism policy. MPhil is a degree that prepares students for PhD work. In the very first application of Turnitin to the MPhil theses, four Quaid-i-Azam University students were reported to have substantially plagiarised. Only recently, the HEC had rated the same university as the top-most in terms of research. This casts doubt on the qualifications of the supervisors and the examiners themselves. How else does one explain the pride of performance award by the president on March 23, to an academic accused of plagiarism? Isa Daudpota, the lone crusader against plagiarism, brought the issue to the attention of the HEC in November last year and again on March 11 this year, but to no avail. By the HEC’s own admission, the cases of plagiarism are on the rise. Isa has also identified a number of fake journals edited by the plagiarists which are then used as outlets for their own publications. All his efforts to encourage the HEC to revise its toothless policy against plagiarism has come to a naught.
Our Constitution stipulates a regulatory role for the HEC. Instead, its focus continues to be on being a funding agency. This was the main point of the last meeting’s proceedings of the vice chancellors committee. With priorities like these, quality and originality will continue to invite laments similar to that of Dr Adil Najam.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2012.
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