Pakistan’s Universities – Problems and Solutions (Part 4)

Reprinted below in full, Shailaja Neelakantan on problems and solutions for universities in Pakistan, from The Chronicle of Higher Education January 19, 2007. This is part of a series of reprints on research and education in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the Problems That Money Can Bring

Spending on higher education has gone up, but critics say academic standards are going down

By Shailaja Neelakantan
Issue cover-dated January 19, 2007
Islamabad, Pakistan

Four undergraduates from the new Air University here dash up, breathless, to talk to a visitor from abroad one afternoon in November. “We heard you are asking students about their views on Pakistan’s higher education, and we really want to talk about it,” says Sidra Haque, a bespectacled telecommunications-engineering major, fashionably clad in a form-fitting pink tunic and loose trousers known as a shalwar kameez. “You know there isn’t a single Ph.D. among our professors?”

Her friend Sana Iqbal chimes in. “And the ones with a bachelor’s degree don’t have enough grasp on the subjects they are teaching us,” she says. “If they don’t know enough, how can we learn?”

Over the past four years, Pakistan’s higher-education budget has increased more than sevenfold, to about $449-million. While that amounts to only 0.5 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, it is a big improvement from the days of barely enough to pay “measly salaries and basic bills,” says Atta-ur-Rahman, chairman of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission.

But for Ms. Haque and her friends, along with many of Pakistan’s most respected academics, the influx of money has done little good. Instead, they say, the slapdash methods of the government’s reform efforts have done more to widen the cracks in an already weak infrastructure than to lay the foundation for an educational renaissance.

“When you feed a starving person through a fire hydrant, it causes a lot of near-deadly digestive problems,” says Isa Daudpota, an Islamabad-based education consultant.

Since being named chairman of the newly formed commission, in 2002, Mr. Rahman has created programs to enroll more students in Ph.D. programs in Pakistan and abroad, to hire foreign faculty members, to establish new universities throughout the country, and to collaborate with foreign partners to open new engineering schools.

A scholar of organic chemistry, former minister of science and technology, and now director of the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, at the University of Karachi, Mr. Rahman was chosen by President Pervez Musharraf to overhaul the country’s higher-education system. He has been given considerable authority to push through changes. He reports directly to the parliament and, by extension, to Mr. Musharraf, who counts the efforts of the four-year-old commission among his most significant political achievements.

That kind of clout has helped get things done quickly. More than 800 Pakistani students, supported by the government, are working toward doctorates in engineering or the sciences in countries including Austria, Britain, China, France, Germany, and South Korea — up from about 20 in 2002. Through a generous — some say lax — program offering individuals, provincial governments, and some unaccredited foreign institutions the chance to establish universities in Pakistan, 3.8 percent of college-age students are enrolled in higher education, up from 2.9 percent four years ago.

A plan to attract expatriate professors and foreign faculty members back to Pakistan, with substantial research grants and salaries of up to $4,000 a month — about a third higher than the maximum pay for professors on the tenure track — has lured 350 expatriates, as well as 201 long-term faculty members and 88 scholars on a short-term basis. They come from countries of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Plans are in the works to start nine engineering universities across the country, in collaboration with Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and other countries, in order to fix the country’s acute shortage of engineers, at a cost of $4-billion to the Pakistan government. Five law schools and several medical schools are in the works as well.

“We have been able to do things in universities in the last few years that have never been done before,” says Mr. Rahman, a charismatic and energetic man whose office walls are lined with framed degrees, chemistry awards, and photographs of him with Mr. Musharraf. On the wall across from his desk is a digital timer that he says shows the numbers of months to completion of a big higher education project.

A Question of Standards

So why are students and professors alike worried? The chairman’s many critics say the flood of money has led to corruption, plagiarism, and favoritism. Far from improving the quality of universities, they say, Mr. Rahman’s financial incentives, lacking sufficient checks and balances, have led to a lowering of already abysmal academic standards.

The critics, who include professors and university administrators, say that instead of engaging top academics, the commission has taken an authoritarian approach toward making its various reforms.

“The way they are going about it is in a personalized, ad hoc, hodgepodge manner,” says Soofia Mumtaz, a social anthropologist and chief of research at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, an autonomous research organization.

The World Bank seems to agree.

“We have pointed to the danger of continuing this somewhat authoritarian course,” says Benoît Millot, an education specialist at the World Bank, whose team prepared a policy note in June on the scope and nature of Pakistan’s higher-education reforms.

“There is a lot of power in the hands of the commission, especially with the chairman and the executive director,” he says. “Maybe in the beginning it was needed to get reforms off the ground,” he acknowledges, but no longer.

One of the commission’s key programs, designed to recruit more foreign faculty members, has been heatedly opposed by many academics, who argue that a lot of money has been spent to hire unsuitable professors, including some who cannot speak English and are not active in research.

Mr. Rahman says such opposition is inevitable, especially from what he calls mediocre academics. But critics say the problem is very real, rooted in the fact that for security reasons, many Europeans and Americans are unwilling to come to Pakistan, and that for political reasons, academics from India are not allowed to come. As a result, say critics, the recruits tend to be Pakistanis teaching in other countries, some of whom are not particularly strong in their fields, and academics from countries like Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, whose command of English is limited.

Zafar Koreshi, dean of the faculty of engineering at Air University, says the commission’s foreign-faculty program is “not working, even though it is spending a lot of money.”

Many of the foreign arrivals, especially in engineering, are Pakistanis who have been abroad for four to five years and are not necessarily the best academics, he says. Nor do they have any intention of staying more than a few months, says Mr. Koreshi.

Not so, responds Mr. Rahman. “They are all on annual contracts,” he says. “We review all cases each year and do not grant extensions if the output is not satisfactory.”

Mr. Koreshi says the commission ought to hire fewer but better foreign professors, and pay them more. Commission members have been told that the foreign-faculty program is not working, he says, “but they don’t really listen to us, because they are bureaucratic and more interested in numbers.”

The need for more faculty members with Ph.D.’s is a pressing one, he says, noting that of the 34 engineering instructors at Air University — which has 1,000 engineering students — only six hold doctorates.

Awash in Money

Figures are hard to come by, but many academics say the sources of much of the commission’s money are the United States and other NATO countries.

Worried about a perceived rise in Islamic fundamentalism after September 11, 2001, the United States and its Western allies have sent considerable financial aid to Pakistan, much of it for education. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, began its education program in Pakistan in 2002 and since then has spent $178-million on elementary and secondary schools and $87-million on higher education.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and former professor of political science at the University of the Punjab, in Lahore, says much of the rest of Pakistan’s education spending comes from other aid it has received from the United States, Europe, and Japan.

“They think through education they can change the mind-set of Pakistanis so they will become moderate and pro-America,” he says.

Randy Hatfield, an education officer in the U.S. aid agency’s Pakistan office, says the $87-million for higher education has been spent mostly on 1,000 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students in agriculture and business at 11 Pakistani universities. Funds are also going to support basic science and information-technology programs at Forman Christian College, in Lahore.

The Higher Education Commission “manages the program, and we get reports on how the money is spent,” says Mr. Hatfield. He declines to comment on complaints that the commission has created some ill-designed programs, saying simply that it is important for the commission to consider standards and quality.

Mr. Rahman says the education budget has been bolstered not by foreign aid, but by a freeze in the defense budget and by annual economic growth of nearly 8 percent over the past four to five years.

Regardless of the source, Pakistan has had trouble spending the money effectively, critics say. One reason is structural: The Higher Education Commission controls only the country’s 57 public universities, which are limited to graduate-level programs. The country’s 700-plus undergraduate colleges are overseen by the underfinanced Ministry of Education. (Air University is one of a few that offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, thus falling under the government commission’s control.)

Those colleges are not under the commission, says Mr. Rahman, because “it is too large a canvas to have a focused, intense program.”

The resulting lopsided attention, many professors say, has left the colleges in bad shape. The World Bank, in its policy note, said the plight of the undergraduate colleges was “even more desperate, their lack of resources is even harsher, and their governance arrangements are even less adequate than in universities.” The report adds that “it would be a grave error” to continue ignoring the fate of the colleges, which “have an important role to play in building the human capital of the country.”

Meanwhile the number of public universities has more than doubled, up from about 25 a decade ago, partly through what some say is a haphazard system of upgrading colleges to university status. Many of them lack both basic infrastructure and qualified faculty members.

Mr. Rahman acknowledges the proliferation of new, low-quality universities. In early 2006, he announced that public universities would be shut down or face budget cuts if they failed to meet standards in infrastructure and in faculty appointments and promotions.

Some academics believe that what is called for is a radical transformation of the entire academic culture in Pakistan.

“Intellectual activity is completely absent in our best universities,” says Ms. Mumtaz, of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. “There are no seminars, peer reviews, or debates. Students aren’t encouraged to ask questions, there is very little research, plagiarism goes on [on] a massive scale, and faculty quality is very low.”

Ms. Mumtaz was an adviser to the commission, but she quit after a few months. “It is the most badly run organization in the world,” she says. “There is a lot of lip service being paid to new ideas, but in actual practice nothing is being done. They are not concerned about what is happening on campuses where the atmosphere has become depressing and pessimistic, thanks to the low-quality, unmotivated staff.”

The commission has its champions as well. Shahbaz Ahmad, dean of the faculty of crop and food sciences at the University of Arid Agriculture, in Rawalpindi, says his institution received “meager financial support” under the old system. The burst in higher-education spending over the past four years has brought not only money, but “quality controls and accountability,” he says.

“The Ph.D. scholarships, both for the foreign and indigenous Ph.D. programs, cover all expenses for the researchers, and professors also get incentives,” explains Mr. Ahmad. “So we are getting more research done now. Going to conferences is also easier now.”

Substandard Scholarship

Problems have also plagued the commission’s efforts to raise the number of students pursuing Ph.D.’s and to reward professors for publishing academic work, some academics say.

The commission’s scholarship program for Ph.D. students has been controversial. Mr. Rahman says 7,000 students are enrolled in doctoral programs, 70 percent of them in engineering and the sciences. Over the next five years, the government wants to increase the number of Ph.D.’s produced annually to 1,500, up from about 30 today. But critics say that many current students do not meet minimum academic qualifications, and that the sharp increase in the number of doctoral students has overwhelmed the professors who are supposed to supervise them.

Commission staff members say students have to pass one of the Educational Testing Service’s GRE tests, or an equivalent national test in subjects in which the GRE is not available, to gain admission to the programs. But two professors who have seen the physics test — one of the subjects for which a GRE exists — say it is not the real thing.

“It’s a shoddy literacy and numeric test,” says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, in Islamabad, and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The universities ignore Mr. Rahman’s year-old GRE requirement, says Mr. Hoodbhoy, because they know that the applicant pool is too weak to pass — and the professors get 5,000 rupees, or about $112, for every student who enrolls in their programs.

“If you get 10 Ph.D. students, your earnings increase by 50,000 rupees, which is quite a lot for someone who earns a salary less than that,” says Hameed Toor, an associate professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam, who also says that the entrance test for physics is not a GRE.

As a result, says Mr. Hoodbhoy, soon there will be thousands of new professors with worthless Ph.D.’s teaching even greater legions of unqualified students.

What’s more, say critics of the country’s higher-education system, many Pakistani scholars produce research of dubious quality, a problem created by a new reward system in which the commission gives published authors 5,000 to 10,000 rupees, or $112 to $224, per paper. The incentive, which has led to a 40-percent increase in the number of academic papers published by Pakistanis, was designed to prevent the sort of stagnation that can set in when seniority is the main criterion for advancement.

But plagiarism, already a problem in the universities, has increased, even at the best institutions. Fazal-e-Aleem, director of the University of the Punjab’s Centre for High Energy Physics, and five other instructors there, presented three plagiarized papers for the American Institute of Physics’ conference proceedings in 2005. The papers have since been retracted by the institute. An investigative committee at Punjab is also looking into an allegation that some of the same professors plagiarized large parts of an article in their submission to an online science magazine.

The committee has yet to take action, despite Mr. Rahman’s demand in May for “strict disciplinary action” and dismissal of those involved “if the charges of plagiarism were proved.” In August the vice chancellor at Punjab inducted Mr. Aleem into the Advanced Studies and Research Board, which approves all doctoral work at the university.

Mr. Rahman portrays the criticism of the publication incentive system as sour grapes among more senior but less productive professors. “This is to reward people who are active,” he says, “so a young person can have a higher income than a senior.”

Army Rule

Mr. Musharraf, an army general who came to power in a 1999 coup, has used military rule to clamp down on corruption and religious fundamentalism. He has taken a similar approach to violence and religious extremism on the campuses, by installing army personnel in leadership positions. Former soldiers and bureaucrats have been appointed despite their lack of academic experience.

Retired Lt. Gen. Arshad Mahmood was named vice chancellor at Punjab in 1999, and retired Lt. Gen. Muhammad Akram Khan became vice chancellor of Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology.

Mr. Khan’s policies drove the university’s most famous researcher, Shahid Bokhari, an elected fellow of the prestigious international Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, to resign in protest in 2005 over, among other things, what he called a misguided expansion to several subcampuses.

In a letter to the commission that was leaked to local news media, Mr. Bokhari wrote: “There are not enough qualified engineering teachers in the country to staff these campuses. As a result, teachers from UET Lahore are being deputed to these subcampuses. This has caused a severe drop in the quality of teaching at the Lahore campus. This, in turn, will lead to a serious decline in the competencies of our graduates.”

The University of the Punjab’s Mr. Mahmood has been an “absolute disaster” for the university, says Mr. Daudpota, the education consultant. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political-science professor, resigned in 2001 because of what he called the vice chancellor’s dictatorial style. One of Mr. Mahmood’s edicts, he says, forbade professors to use electric heaters. He blocked Mr. Rizvi’s attempt to attend a conference abroad and did little to improve rampant plagiarism on the campus, the professor said. Mr. Mahmood could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Daudpota has also had a run-in over new university leadership. He says he was fired as head of a government-run academic center in 2004 after questioning the decision to award a doctorate to a vice chancellor who was a retired army captain. (“This is nonsense,” says Mr. Rahman in response. “His one-year term was not renewed because he was not productive.”)

Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise on some campuses. The Islami-Jamiat-e-Talaba, an Islamist student group, is a potent force at the University of the Punjab as well as at the University of Karachi and the University of Peshawar. The group recently protested the introduction of a master’s degree in musicology at Punjab as un-Islamic, and members have roughed up students for talking to members of the opposite sex. The vice chancellor at Punjab has not been able to do much to control the organization.

“There are morality squads that go around to see that no girl is talking to a boy, there is a separate cafeteria for men and women, and some classrooms have a curtain separating male and female students,” says Mr. Hoodbhoy, an authority on Pakistan’s education system, about Punjab. The group apparently forced the separation policies on the administration.

Mr. Rahman says directors of academic institutions should be scholars: “I spoke to President Musharraf and said there should be a transparent process of selecting vice chancellors, and he agreed.” One general “did a good job at UET Lahore, which was in a shambles,” Mr. Rahman adds jokingly, “but I’m not saying generals should be made VC’s.”

He plays down the specter of fundamentalism on the campuses, saying that, officially, there are no religious restrictions at Punjab, and that the university functions he attends have “a lot of music.”

But Mr. Rahman acknowledges that such concerns are founded in reality. “Yes, the student community there has created this atmosphere,” he says. “But how can we do anything by issuing statements from Islamabad?”

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Volume 53, Issue 20, Page A38