Higher education ravaged – Dr Atta-Ur-Rahman

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The HEC policies during the last three years led to a mushroom growth of 50 new universities, while simultaneously the programmes to develop highly qualified faculty were curtailed.

Some 8,000 scholarships available for PhD level training, worth about 50 billion rupees, were held back by the HEC. This resulted in a sharp drop in the PhD level faculty-to-student ratio and a corresponding decline in the quality of education, since the quality of undergraduate and postgraduate education is directly dependent on the number and quality of qualified faculty available. Thousands of our young men and women were thus needlessly deprived of being trained at the world’s best universities, and then contribute to the development of this nation.

Research funding for academics too was severely curtailed. The largest programme introduced by us when I was chairman of the HEC during 2002-2008 was a massive research fund known as the National Research Program for Universities (NRPU). It provided an opportunity to faculty members, especially those starting out in their careers, to establish research programmes. The end of this initiative by the HEC paralysed research in universities, and contributed to many young and women who had completed PhD training under scholarships awarded by previous HEC administrations not to return to Pakistan, as they saw no future for themselves. Those that returned demonstrated outside the PM House as no job opportunities were created for them. Billions of rupees of the nation were thus lost on their training abroad, and the quality of teaching and research plummeted.

Another scheme devised by the HEC was to somehow get all PhD degrees awarded by Pakistani universities de-recognized internationally! The HEC decided that the Master’s degree would no longer be necessary for admission to a PhD programme. Instead, students could be admitted to a PhD degree directly after a Bachelor’s degree.

According to international requirements laid down in the Bologna protocol, there need to be three independent cycles of education. The first is the undergraduate cycle of education leading to a Bachelor’s degree; the second is the graduate cycle leading to a Master’s degree; and the third is the doctoral cycle leading to a PhD degree. The HEC decided to take out the middle Master’s cycle, in direct violation of the Bologna protocol. We all know how poorly prepared students are as they come out of our colleges. To expect them to enter into a PhD programme without going through the Master’s degree has proved to be the final nail in the coffin of our higher education system.

Another scheme devised by the HEC that has severely damaged the quality of our PhD programmes is the evaluation of PhD theses by local faculty members instead of sending the theses to faculty members abroad. When I was chairman, we had incorporated several requirements to ensure that the PhDs produced met some minimum international quality standards. One of these was a mandatory plagiarism check. Another was that all theses had to be sent to at least two foreign experts in well-recognised international universities in advanced countries for evaluation and approval. These measures had resulted in a significant increase in the quality of doctoral research. The HEC recently decided under orders of its recent chairman that PhD theses need not be evaluated by foreign experts, but they could be sent to local faculty members in Pakistani universities for evaluation. This shocking move to allow local friends of the supervisor to evaluate the PhD thesis of his/her student, will cover up faults in a weak thesis.

It is correct to state that the quality of Masters and PhD holders is generally quite poor. But the blame largely lies in the 16 years of earlier education that they have received in schools and colleges. They cannot write a sentence in good English or communicate properly. The subject-focused two-year Masters programmes in universities cannot overcome these deficiencies. They have to be addressed at the school and college levels.

Pakistan made historic progress in the higher education sector during its earlier years when I was chairman till 2008 as well as later till 2018. This was because all the chairpersons that followed me in the subsequent 12-year period pursued the same policies that we had devised during 2002-2008. So dramatic was the increase in research output in high quality impact factor journals that Pakistan overtook India in 2017.

Neutral external observers who evaluated the higher education programmes applauded the sharp improvement in quality and output. German academic Prof Wolfgang Voelter reviewed the performance of the HEC during the period 2002-2008 when I was chairman, and wrote: “A miracle happened… the scenario of education and science and technology in Pakistan has changed dramatically, as never before in the history of the country”. Thomson Reuters in an independent assessment of Pakistan’s progress in international publications acknowledged that there was a tenfold growth in highly cited papers, statistics that were better than the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries.

USAID Consultant Prof Fred M. Hayward coming to the same conclusion wrote: “since 2002, a number of extraordinary changes have taken place…The Commission (HEC) instituted major upgrades for scientific laboratories, rehabilitating existing educational facilities…a quality assurance and accreditation process was also established”.

The reforms brought about by us during 2002-2008 were also applauded by the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD). Its chairman Prof Michael Rode of Innsbruck, Austria wrote “the progress made was breath-taking and has put Pakistan ahead of comparable countries in numerous aspects… the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development has closely monitored the development in Pakistan in the past years, coming to the unanimous conclusion that commission’s program initiated under the leadership of Prof Atta-ur-Rahman is a ‘best-practice’ example for developing countries aiming at building their human resources and establishing an innovative, technology-based economy”. The successes achieved by us were a team effort with Dr Akram Sheikh and Dr Sohail Naqvi as well as many others striving for excellence together.

The massive wastage of government funding and illegal actions of hiring expensive consultants in defiance of government rules has forced NAB to start investigations. Alas, much damage has been done in the last three years. It is now time to rebuild.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com