Pakistan’s Universities – Problems and Solutions

5 03 2008


Pervez Hoodbhoy January 27, 2008

Highr Education Controversies

General Pervez Musharraf’s regime boasts of its successes in science and education at home and abroad. Recently, I saw Pakistan’s successes trumpeted by a large official delegation headed by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, the chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) at a conference in Trieste,

Italy. They came to address a special session on science development in Pakistan – the only country that had requested and paid for such special treatment at the conference. Those who did not know about the state of science in Pakistan were amazed by the claims made. Those who knew better were stunned by the flood of self-serving lies, half-truths and deceit.

The claims made were several. A 300 percent jump in research publications shows that academic activity in Pakistan has vastly increased; nine new engineering universities with European teaching faculty will soon be established; the 3000 Pakistani students sent overseas for higher degrees will revolutionize the university system upon return; Ph.Ds produced annually from Pakistani universities will soon approach the spectacular figure of 1500; mathematics is now a strong discipline in Pakistan; and so forth.

The truth is very different. Even though the spending on higher education has increased 15 times over the last five years, the improvements have been cosmetic. Genuine science in Pakistan has actually shrunk, not grown, over the last three decades. The trend has not been reversed. Euphoric claims notwithstanding, public university education in Pakistan remains miserably backward by international standards. Its real problems are yet to be touched.

Take the HEC’s first claim: the 3-fold increase in Pakistani academic publications. Fantastically large per-paper monetary rewards to university teachers – a practice not adopted anywhere else in the world for excellent reasons – have indeed boosted publication rates. But publishing more papers is not the same as doing more research. Instead, the high rewards have caused an explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, publication of trivial results and falsified data, and publication of slightly different versions of the same paper in different journals. Most published papers are worthless academically and scientifically.

The reader can readily verify the last point. All that is needed is a computer and an internet connection. Simply type into your browser, and then the name of any individual scientist or scholar you want. (Academic databases even more comprehensive than Google are available but not free.) A list of publications of that person, together with a count of the number of times his/her papers have been cited by other scholars, will be displayed. Remember that a piece of scientific work is important only if it is useful to other scientists, or to industry in the form of patents that lead to new products (a separate database exists for that). So, in a matter of seconds, one can see which individuals are considered important by the world of science and academia.

The results of such database searches are eye-opening. A majority of papers by Pakistani authors, even if published in international journals by some hook or crook, have exactly zero citations (once self-citations are removed). Such papers have contributed nothing. They may just as well have not been written. The average number of citations per Pakistani paper is 3.41 (includes self-citation), which is much below that in scientifically advanced countries.

Still more shocking is the citation record of some of Pakistan’s most well-advertised scientists, whose relentless self-promotion at government expense would be considered a crime in another country. While they have hundreds of papers and books to their credit, most of these have zero-citations. Others in their field seem to have scarcely noticed any of their work. On the other hand the reader can check that about 25-30 other
Pakistani scientists, who are unadvertised, relatively unknown, and have published far fewer papers, nevertheless have much better citation records and a moderately good international standing in their respective fields.

Now for the HEC’s nine Pak-European universities project: This is a stunning disaster. The most advanced university (in terms of construction and planning) was the French engineering university in Karachi. Named UESTP-France, with a completion cost of Rs. 26 billion rupees, it was to have begun functioning in October 2007. There is still no official explanation for why this did not happen, no new date has been set, and no account given of the money already spent.

On the face of it, making Pak-European universities sounds like a wonderful idea. Pakistan would pay for France, Sweden, Italy, and some other European countries to help set up, manage, and provide professors for new universities in Pakistan. It would be expensive – Pakistan would have to pay the full development costs, recurrent expenses, and euro-level salaries (plus 40% markup) for all the foreign professors and vice-chancellors. But it would still be worth it because the large presence of European professors teaching in these Pakistani universities would ensure good teaching. High-standard degrees would subsequently be awarded by institutions in the respective European countries.

Even commonsense said that the project could not work. Perhaps one can persuade beefy mercenaries of the French Foreign Legion to go to some country where suicide bombings happen daily and killing of ordinary citizens by terrorists is routine. But it takes an enormous leap of faith to think that respectable academics from France – or any other European country for that matter – will want to live and teach in Pakistan for a year or more. Travel advisories issued by several European governments warn against even brief visits. That the French professors did not turn up at UESTP-France is scarcely surprising. But, lost to their mad fantasies, HEC planners are now working on the vain assumption that the Germans and Swedes are made of sterner stuff than the French.

A wiser leadership would have aimed for one properly planned new engineering university, set up under the European Union. It would have sought external help for adding engineering departments to existing universities, as well as to massively upgrade existing ones. But these relatively modest goals are unacceptable to the present HEC leadership that believes, like the Musharraf regime as a whole, in grand plans rather than practical, feasible, reforms.

Showing the hollowness of the other official claims of progress would take more space than available here. Slick PowerPoint presentations by HEC officials throw one figure after another at dizzying speed giving the impression of fantastic progress. But the intelligent listener must ask many questions: does it make sense to select thousands of students on the basis of a substandard high-school level numeracy and literacy test, and then send them for an expensive graduate-level education in Europe? Will the quality of Pakistani graduates not be further degraded by pushing Ph.D production far beyond the capability of the present universities?

It is time to end the fetish of buying tons of expensive scientific equipment that, at the end of it all, produce only zero-citation papers and zero patents. Curiously, after a bunch of projects were exposed as phony, the HEC broke with its past practice and now no longer puts on its website details of HEC-funded projects. It is also time to stop HEC officials and HEC delegates from gallivanting across the globe at public expense on the vaguest of excuses for “fact-finding” missions and conferences.

There must be an independent investigation of the HEC’s plans and financing, a review of its programs, and a full audit of accounts. The inquiry should be jointly done by the future government through the PAC and NAB, assisted by a citizens committee. Individual whims and personal ambitions must be checked to protect the national interest. Pakistan is a poor country although, looking at the HEC’s spending patterns, one would conclude the opposite.

The record-setting increase in the budget for higher education – which shot up from Rs 3.8 billion in 2002 to Rs 33.7 billion in 2007 – has led to little beyond cosmetic changes. So, what can be done?

Solutions are needed at three distinct levels – determining correct funding priorities, implementing approved plans and projects responsibly, and, most importantly, inducing changes in values to promote and enable real learning.

Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher education (about 0.8 million) study in about 700 colleges. These colleges receive pitifully small funding compared to universities. During 2001-2004, the funds annually allocated to colleges averaged a miserable sum of Rs 0.48 billion and the spending per college student was only one sixth that for a university student. Subsequently this has become worse. It is no surprise then that public colleges are in desperate shape with dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and laboratory and library facilities that exist only in name.

Meanwhile, many public universities are awash in funds. They have gone on a shopping binge for all kinds of gadgetry – fax machines, fancy multimedia projectors, and electricity-guzzling airconditioners. But it would be hard to argue that any of this has served to improve teaching quality even marginally. Worse, the availability of “free money” has led to the pursuit of numerous madcap projects such as the HEC’s hugely expensive, but failed, attempt to bring in hundreds of fearful European university professors to teach in a country where suicide bombers kill at will.

The beggarly treatment of colleges compared to universities is often justified on grounds that universities perform research while colleges do not. But, notwithstanding a few honorable exceptions, this “research” has added little to the stock of existing knowledge as judged by the international community of scholars. Nevertheless, in 2005/2006 university research funding totaled a whopping Rs 0.342 billion. Past experience shows that much of the money will be used to buy expensive research equipment that will find little if any real use.

Instead of continuing to pay for dubious research, funding priorities must shift to improving teaching quality, especially in colleges. Pakistani university and college students, as well as their teachers, are far below the internationally accepted levels in terms of basic subject understanding. As one indicator, performance scores of Pakistanis on the US Graduate Record Examinations, which test subject basics, are miserably poor compared to students from India or China. For example, of the 56 M.Phil and Ph.D students who recently took the physics exam from the best physics department in the country – that at Quaid-e-Azam University – none was able to get even a semi-respectable score in this entry-level examination.

Because bad teaching quality largely comes from having teachers with insufficient knowledge of their subject, it is important both to have better teacher selection mechanisms and to create large-scale teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as trainers from across the country and from our neighbours. It is hard to see any trainers coming from western countries, although one should try to get them. This effort will cost money and take time – perhaps on the order of a billion dollars over 5 years. These high-quality institutions should have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasize basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. They should award degrees to create an incentive for teachers to go there and to do well.

Until a sufficiently large number of adequate university teachers can be generated by the above (and various other) means, the senseless policy of making new universities must be discontinued. The HEC prides itself in almost doubling the number of public universities over 6 years. But there is nothing 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.

Better academic planning and management at the national level – which has no monetary cost – is crucial to having higher education institutions that actually function. Major quality improvements could result from using nation-wide standardized tests for student admission into higher education institutions; teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials effectively; and designing standardized teaching laboratories that may be efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.

But implementation of even the best plans comes to naught without good management at the institutional level. Good leaders have made a difference in their respective institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a patronage system because of which unqualified and unsuitable military men, as well as bureaucrats, are often appointed as vice-chancellors, principals, and registrars. Therefore most institutional heads are inept and vital tasks remain unimplemented. These include enforcement of academic ethics, creating the culture of civilized debate on campuses, encouragement of community work, etc. The harm done by badly chosen senior administrators cannot be undone by any amount of money.

DEEPER ISSUES: Sixty years of consistent failure force us to search for reasons that go beyond fiscal and administrative issues. What sets us apart from the developed world, or even India and Iran? In Pakistan the dead hand of tradition stands squarely in the way of modern education and a modern mindset that relies on critical thinking. The educational system, shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages questioning and stresses obedience.

In seeking change, it will be important to break the tyranny of the teacher, a relic of pre-modern social values. Closed minds cannot innovate, create art and literature, or do science. Most Pakistani students memorize an arbitrary set of rules and an endless number of facts and say that X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook says. (I grind my teeth whenever a master’s or Ph.D student in my university class gives me this argument!)

There has to be social acceptance of modern education which, at its fundamentals, is entirely about individual liberty, willingness to accept change, intellectual honesty, and constructive rebellion. Critical thought allows individuals to make a revolutionary difference and to reinvent the future. Else they will merely repeat the dysfunction of the past.

To open minds, the change must begin at the school level. Good pedagogy requires encouraging the spirit of healthy questioning in the classroom. It should therefore be normal practice for teachers to raise such questions as: How do we know? What is important to measure? How to check the correctness of measurements? What is the evidence? How to make sense out of your results? Is there a counter explanation, or perhaps a simpler one? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such critical questions and framing reasoned answers.

Reforming higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if considers the totality of problems, such as outlined here, and if solution strategies are pursued with honesty and integrity. This task has yet to begin.

[The author is chairman and professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. This essay was published in two parts in Dawn (Jan 2-9, 2008) ]

HEC SPOKESPERSON (10 Jan, 2008):

This is with reference to the article “Sham university reforms” by Pervez Hoodbhoy (Jan 2). Since its formation in 2002, the Higher Education Commission has made remarkable progress, implementing the much needed reforms. These include: setting of stringent requirements for the appointment and promotion of faculty members, strict quality control of PhD programmes, establishment of a digital library providing free access to 23,000 international journals to all public sector universities.

It has also introduced an e-books programme so that every public sector university now has access to 45,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers, has initiated a programme of live lectures from technologically advanced countries through video conferencing in real time and with full inter-activity.

Moreover, changes in the salary structure of academics under the tenure track system have been made through which salaries of scholars active in research have been increased significantly.

Most universities in Pakistan, including the Quaid-i-Azam University, have adopted this system. Introduction of a foreign faculty hiring programme through which the “brain drain” from Pakistan has been converted into a “brain gain” with over 200 eminent faculty members, who had worked for most of their lives in technologically advanced countries, have now returned to join universities in Pakistan.

These changes have been implemented and they are changing the landscape of our universities to the benefit of the nation.

The HEC reforms have been internationally praised. A WB report says that “these positive reforms already have benefited the universities”. It goes on to state that the “HEC has placed quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector at the centre of its agenda” and that “the programmes spelled out in the medium-term development framework of the HEC are an impressive set of initiatives”.

Praising the leadership provided by Prof (Dr) Atta-ur-Rahman within the
HEC, it states that “the HEC has gained authority since its inception in part because of its own strong and professional leadership, independent board and ample funding” and that “still a young institution, the HEC already has a legacy. Since its inception, it has been startlingly active and has shaken up the world of the universities”.

These reforms were presented at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS) in Trieste by a delegation of leading scientists of Pakistan comprising Dr Amir Mohammad, Prof (Dr) Sheikh
Riazuddin, Prof Iqbal Chaudhary, Prof Qasim Mehdi, Prof Tassawar Hayat and Dr Nasiruddin.

The presentations highlighted the achievements that Pakistan has made during last five years through the HEC programmes. By calling these presentations half-truths etc, Dr Hoodbhoy does no justice to Pakistan.

His stand is that increase in our research output has arisen due to “explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, publication of trivial results and falsified data, and publication of slightly different versions of the same paper in different journals”.

This is wrong. It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and eliminate plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it.

By trivialising more than 1,600 research articles from Pakistan in the world’s top journals in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology, the writer only exposes his own biases.

Mr Hoodbhoy is also critical of the initiative to establish a number of new universities of engineering, science and technology. Such universities take years to plan and implement.

The French-sponsored university has been deliberately delayed to enable the formation of a strong consortium of French universities. Calling this delay a “stunning disaster” is again an example of a typical exaggeration.

He also wrongly says that there has been extravagant funding of our higher education sector. The budget of all 57 public sector universities in Pakistan put together is $500 million, which is about 40 per cent less than that of the National University of Singapore.

SAMINA WAQAR Director-General (Public Relations), HEC, Islamabad


The HEC has, as expected, responded to my expose (Dawn, 2 Jan) of its unconscionable squandering of public funds by trotting out its usual list of claimed achievements (Dawn, 10 Jan). But this spiritless reply does not address the issues I raised, except distantly and peripherally. Instead, it takes refuge in a 2006 World Bank report, issued by a WB team led by Benoit Millot, that lavishes praise upon the HEC for having effected “quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector”, and for having revolutionized Pakistans universities.

I find this fascinating and disturbing. This is a perfect example where two institutions are driven by shared needs — the WB to lend and the HEC to spend. While the WB report is printed on glossy paper, is written in fine English, and has beautiful graphics, it is fundamentally flawed because it contains no meaningful data on the quality of education in Pakistani universities. Browsing though WB publications, I simply did not see any report that purports to be a scientifically performed survey on this specific matter.

When and how, may I ask, did the WB check the quality of faculty or that of the student body across Pakistani universities? Has it surveyed library and laboratory facilities, the content of university courses, the standard of examination papers, the presence (or lack thereof) of academic colloquia and seminars on campuses, etc? Was any assessment made of the number of days in a year that the universities actually functioned, the suitability of those appointed as vice-chancellors, employer satisfaction with university graduates, etc? These are crucial quality indicators. Unless one has reasonably reliable data on such matters, the opinions expressed in the quoted WB report are simply vacuous.

If the WB has indeed carried out a relevant survey, I would be most grateful to know the reference to such work and apologize in advance for any hurt caused. On the other hand, if there is no such work, then I would like to know what the WBs $1500 per-day education consultants do in a third-world country beyond cutting and pasting from official reports. If other sections of the World Bank operate similarly, then one fears for Pakistan.

The HEC has picked many numbers that suit its purposes but has not attempted to see if they are meaningful. It is unfortunate that the HEC spokesperson accuses me of trivializing all 1600 research papers published in recent times. I did not. Instead, I merely showed that the interested reader — using the free Google.Scholar data base mentioned in my article — can judge each one of these papers to see if anyone in the world has found them useful or interesting. Unfortunately, all but a tiny fraction have zero citations.

To my mind, publishing even two dozen papers yearly — provided they are highly original and well-cited — would have a far healthier impact on our universities than the hundreds of junk papers generated by the government’s per-paper reward scheme. While the spokesperson lamely claims that “It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and eliminate plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it”, no such thing is evident. On the contrary, newspapers in Pakistan and abroad are full of stories about Pakistani academics who freely plagiarize materials across the globe as they rush to grab the rewards.

Finally, I do believe that there is an alternative direction in which to improve and expand higher education, and which could gainfully use the huge sums now allocated to the HEC. For this, the interested reader is referred to part-II of my article (Dawn, 12-01-2008).




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