Fixing higher education

Published: December 13, 2014
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The writer is Special Assistant to Federal Minister at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms. He tweets @HNadim87

The writer is Special Assistant to Federal Minister at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms. He tweets @HNadim87

In my previous article, “Reforms in the education sector” (November 29), I discussed the quick reforms needed in the overall education sector that could provide a foundation for more extensive reforms. Building on that, since I have taught at the university level and understand the system from within, there are several reforms in the higher education sector that must be carried out if we are interested in reaping the dividends of the money that will be spent on the Higher Education Commission (HEC) this year — the highest ever in history with efforts of the federal minister for planning, development and reforms.

For one, the higher education system, especially the universities, must be made free of corruption, nepotism and politics. The vice chancellor (VC)-registrar nexus makes these positions the most sought-after, not only because of the perks that come with them, but also because of the opportunity of embezzlement in development funds that they provide. In fact, during the previous PPP regime, vice chancellorship seemed to be at auction for the highest bidders. One is left disappointed that academics — the most educated lot of Pakistan — could be involved in nepotism, politics and corruption.

University administrations are more bureaucratic and slow than any government department that I have worked or interacted with. A typical bureaucratic culture thrives at universities, with there being over-staffing in the form of too many peons and office boys. At a leading university in Islamabad, the ratio of teaching faculty to staff was 1:6 — a financial waste that even Western universities, like Harvard or Cambridge, with billions of dollars of budget, cannot afford. Investing in the HEC and universities, thus, will only pay off if the administrations of universities are reformed and their internal restructuring takes place.

Second, almost all public universities in Pakistan are wholly dependent on the government for funding, with little or no culture of self-sustainability and making profitable investments by utilising resources allocated by the government to the university. One method to become self-sustainable is to create alumni networks in universities. Alumni give back and events can be held for them, which can not only help raise money for universities and for scholarships for students, but can also help establish university-market links that can put students in job markets. Similarly, setting up incubation centres at universities is a way forward for them to become financially independent.

Third, from the students’ perspective, the major issue with higher education is the mismatch between supply and demand. The market needs technology and science graduates while universities seem to be mainly producing arts/humanities students. An agro-based economy, Pakistan barely produces graduates with degrees in agriculture economy who can add value to the agriculture sector. Similar is the case with the textile sector, the major export of Pakistan, with few universities providing cutting edge degrees in textile engineering. Part of the reason for such a mismatch is the lack of counseling available to students on which subjects and careers to choose, and also the lack of availability of science teachers in universities, due to which students are forced to opt for arts subjects that have little value in the job market.

There is a real yearning in Pakistan for higher education. It is for a reason that almost all MNAs and ministers are interested in building universities/colleges in their districts so everyone can access higher education.

The quality of education provided is another major concern, even at the top universities. With almost no teacher training, absolutely no culture of research, and with a curriculum that is too conservative for students to develop strong analytical/ critical skills, Pakistani students stand little chance to compete internationally. There is a reason why with a population of 180 million, we have only been able to produce one Nobel laureate in an academic field — truly shameful compared with Israel, a small country that seems to win this award every year.

As the government starts with brilliant initiatives like the Science Farming Scheme for Students and the Research Innovation Fund for returning PhD scholars to pursue cutting edge research, it must be careful not to create islands of excellence that work in silos. The challenge for us in the government is to find a way to integrate our efforts in public-private-academic partnerships that can yield national results.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th,  2014.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Ali Tanoli
    Dec 13, 2014 - 1:54AM

    why your junta and few percent rich tax thieves have schools even better than westren schools
    and there hospitals are fully equiped and better than west and what a shame is that mejority of
    peoples in this country dont have basic life saving things and u camparing it with Harvard and cam what a pity and what a shame is that we dont have basic health ficilities for poor massesRecommend

  • Educator
    Dec 13, 2014 - 8:02AM

    I am sorry, but for anyone to think of higher education in terms of “supply and demand” is extremely dangerous, naive and simply off base. I am a Professor myself but this is a dangerous way to think. Higher education has to be about big things, big vision, long-term impact. Not about supply and demand. No wonder we are in a mess that we are in.

    Recommend

  • shehzad
    Dec 13, 2014 - 11:55AM

    @Educator: perhaps ‘we are in the mess that we are in’ because many of our educators lack even a fundamental understanding of supply and demand.. It’s nice to talk of big vision or ‘big goals’ but that has to be done within the confines of demand and supply.

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  • Imran Minhas
    Dec 13, 2014 - 12:08PM

    @Educator: So you’re saying we should spend money on Higher Education without aligning it with the demand and supply in the market? Great. Let’s start producing MA Urdu/Persian and etc while our economy needs more people in agriculture and textile. Great spending by the Government, right?

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  • Dec 13, 2014 - 2:21PM

    Consider the irony. The government appoints the VCs of public universities as also the CEO of all public sector institutions. So who is to blame if inappropriate heads are appointed? The author works for one of the key ministers with a say in these appointments. So who is he complaining to? Should he not quit in protest against what the government is doing?

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  • Dec 13, 2014 - 5:39PM

    @Imran Minhas:
    People keep arguing in this binary framework – either Urdu/Persian or agriculture/textile. This misses the entire problem of our unidimensional education. People specializing in agriculture/textile would benefit from exposure to the humanities and social sciences and people specializing in the humanities would benefit from being literate in science. That is why the best universities in the world have a core curriculum that is required to graduate for all students irrespective of their majors.

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  • Ali
    Dec 13, 2014 - 5:46PM

    Planning and Development Division seriously needs some more wisdom

    Recommend

  • Tina
    Dec 13, 2014 - 8:56PM

    @South Asian,
    Even if the author doesn’t agree to choices made at his workplace, quitting it in protest should not be an option or suggestion. Work in the system to make a difference – do not abandon it.Recommend

  • raider
    Dec 14, 2014 - 8:19PM

    first tend to build primary and secondary education which are hub of all emerging minds in universities, this superficial state of academics of universities could not be put to end unless peoples right to sanctity of vote is hallmarked and harnesses on just bases of building research and academic institutions rather showcase building and similar very infrastructures.

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  • abdul moeed
    Dec 15, 2014 - 2:09AM

    Discipline-wise trickle down reforms shall be of value too. For example, one of the developed country obligates the business graduates to involve themselves individually in business start-ups and earn a net worth of 2 million local currency, afterwards they will be awarded a performance based degree. It is meaningful that we involve our passing out graduates in their specializing field to produce fresh output in terms of economical growth.

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