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Access, quality and relevance
« on: April 07, 2008, 11:30:19 PM »

January 06, 2008

Access, quality and relevance

By Rabia Garib

RAPID advances in science and technology, especially during the last several decades, have led to a division of the world into a few countries which have advanced rapidly and become producers of technology-based products and processes, leaving other nations behind. In this new world in which innovation determines progress, Pakistan has made a late but spectacular start which is now resulting in the transformation of our universities and centres of higher learning.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) was established in October 2002 and Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, FRS, was appointed its first chairman. Under his visionary leadership, HEC launched a very aggressive programme to tackle three core problems in the higher education sector — access, quality and relevance of higher education.

At the time of the establishment of HEC, a little over five years ago, only 2.7 per cent of our youth aged between 17-23 had access to higher education. This compares poorly with the rapidly developing countries. In Korea, for instance, 88 per cent of the students of the same age group have access to higher education. In India it is presently nine per cent of the same age group. HEC therefore embarked on an ambitious programme to increase enrollment and there has been a 50 per cent increase already. The current enrollment is 3.7 per cent of this age group, and HEC plans to take it to 10 per cent over the next 10 years.

The main challenge faced by the higher education sector in Pakistan is that of quality which is closely linked to the quality and creativity of the faculty members in our universities. The higher education sector had been allowed to deteriorate and collapse over the last 50 years, reflected by the diminishing funding of the higher education sector as a percentage of the total allocation to education. In the first five year plan in the 1950s, the higher education sector was allocated 32 per cent of the national education budget but this was allowed to diminish to about two per cent of the total education budget by the year 2000.

This criminal negligence by successive governments resulted in erosion of the university education system, and most universities were transformed to low-level colleges by the late 1990s.

After the establishment of the HEC, there has been a much-needed increase in the budget of the higher education sector which is now about 14 per cent of the total education budget, but the proportion is still far too low. This increase must be continued by successive governments so that we can reach international norms of two-third national funding to the lower education sector and one-third to the higher education sector.

There are some 11,000 faculty members in Pakistani universities out of which only about 3,000 possess PhD degrees and of these only about 600 are active in research.

HEC has rightly focused its programmes on faculty development and about 60 per cent of its funding is devoted to scholarships. Projects worth over Rs35 billion for scholarships have already been approved and projects worth another Rs25 billion are in process of approval. The universities are growing at an average rate of about 15 per cent, and the PhD level faculty requirements are at least another 25,000 over the next decade. To cope with this shortage of PhD level manpower, HEC has already sent about 2,000 students abroad for PhD, and it is now sending about 1,000 students abroad each year after a very competitive selection process. This involves the holding of a national test every two months in which 12,000-15,000 students appear and the best performing 300-400 are short-listed. These are then interviewed by teams of foreign visiting scientists from Germany, France and other countries. In order to ensure that they return on completion of their PhDs and are not lost to the West, HEC has taken the following comprehensive measures:

i) Each HEC scholar studying for PhD in a foreign country can compete and win a research grant of up to Rs6 million in the last year of his PhD abroad. This will allow returning scholars to buy equipment and research materials well before their return to Pakistan and help them to settle down in their academic/research institutes.

ii) The salary structure of faculty members has been increased dramatically, and Pakistan today is the only country in the world in which a professor can have a salary which is five to six times that of federal ministers in the government. This has been done through the introduction of a ‘tenure track’ system in which faculty members are appointed on temporary contract appointments for up to six years, with two independent external evaluations being conducted by an international panel of experts in technologically-advanced countries in respect of research productivity and creativity, the first evaluation taking place after three years and the second after six years. Salaries are up to Rs312,000 per month and the maximum tax payable by teachers in universities is only five per cent. Grant of tenure is given only after positive evaluation by the external committees. If the evaluations are not positive, the contracts are terminated.

iii) After a careful statistical analysis, HEC is sending students for MPhil/PhD studies largely to those countries where the standards of education are high but the ‘loss’ rate is very low such as Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, etc. Countries such as USA and UK are being avoided in such programmes, except for one programme, the Fulbright programme, under which 640 students are being sent abroad to the Ivy league universities in the US. However, in this case 2/3 of the funding is being provided by USAID and only 1/3 by HEC.

iv) Students being sent abroad have jobs to comeback to.

v) Arrangements have been made with the foreign embassies that they are not given work visas abroad on completion of their PhDs.

vi) Students are normally required to sign bonds and deposit property documents against the funds being provided for their education, exceptions being made in the case of poor students.

Another programme focused on strengthening of faculty is directed at attracting high quality researchers from technologically advanced countries. This foreign faculty hiring programme has been very successful and over 500 eminent scholars who have lived most of their lives abroad have returned to Pakistan on long-term and short-term basis. Some 45 mathematicians, largely from Eastern Europe (which is reputed to have some of the top mathematicians in the world) have been clustered in one institution — Government College University, Lahore — and a world class centre of mathematics is now emerging.

Under another programme launched by HEC, over 2,000 bright young students have been offered indigenous scholarships to carry out their PhD programmes within Pakistan. There is strong emphasis to ensure the high quality of this local PhD programme which includes passing of an international subject GRE examination before admission into the PhD programme, evaluation of PhD thesis by two eminent experts in technologically advanced countries and publication of at least one paper in an HEC-recognised journal. In order to improve the quality of indigenous PhD students, HEC has introduced a sandwich type split PhD system under which PhD students have the opportunity of spending some time abroad in a technologically-advanced country. A post-doctoral programme for students completing PhD degrees locally has been introduced by the HEC which allows local PhDs to widen their horizons and get further training abroad.

These and other programmes are rapidly changing the state of our universities. The real changes will become apparent in about 5-10 years with the induction of thousands of bright young men and women as highly qualified faculty members of our universities. Some 250 young PhDs will return next year after obtaining PhD degrees abroad, 600 in the year after that, and over a thousand each year thereafter. That is when the major impact of HEC programmes will be apparent, although we already see a remarkable 360 per cent increase in internationally abstracted research publications from Pakistan over the last four years.

Successive governments must build on these and the many other valuable initiatives of the HEC, which are bringing about dramatic changes in the higher education sector in Pakistan.
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