Pakistan’s Universities – Problems and Solutions (Part 1)

Reprinted below in full, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy on problems and solutions for universities in Pakistan, from DAWN January 02, 2008. This is the first part of a series of reprints on research and education in Pakistan.


Sham university reforms

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

GEN 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, 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 per cent 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 3,000 Pakistani students sent overseas for higher degrees will revolutionise the university system upon return; PhDs produced annually from Pakistani universities will soon approach the spectacular figure of 1,500; mathematics is now a strong discipline in Pakistan; and so forth.

The truth is very different. Even though 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 three-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 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 and relatively unknown, have a far better citation record 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 Rs26bn, 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 per cent 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 common sense 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 PhD 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 phoney, 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 programmes and a full audit of accounts. The inquiry should be jointly done by the future government through the PAC and NAB, assisted by a citizen’s 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.

In my next article, I shall argue that there are far better uses for the enormous funding that is now available for higher education.

The writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Photo credit: Furhan Hussain.

The second part in this series is an interview with Dr Qasim Mehdi on research in Pakistan.

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