Untangling the HEC’s timeline – Dr Ayesha Razzaque

35

All the problems of the higher education sector are being laid at the feet of the HEC management being pushed out before the end of its term, by means of another ill-advised and poorly thought through ordinance that will cut short the HEC chairman’s tenure from four years down to two. At this point, it is worth examining some of the most significant and enduring problems in higher education, their timelines and, if we can, their origins.

The HEC is being accused of training and hiring too few PhDs to work at universities. Selecting, sending and training a single PhD can easily take five to six years. Given the length of this pipeline, the seeds of any problems on this count were sown at least five years earlier.

PhD scholarship recipients have been returning to Pakistan at a faster clip since about 2008. They have been (re)joining universities in fulfillment of the contracts (‘bonds’, in common parlance) they signed before departing, obligating them to serve at approved institutions for a minimum of five years. By the time their contractual obligation ends, many have figured out that without any pension or retirement benefits and a job that can terminate after any three-year period, they will probably have to choose between giving their children a decent education or fulfilling the basic need of buying themselves a roof over their heads in this lifetime.

So it is that the best talent, the ones we should want to retain the most, end up leaving the country for greener pastures. To drive home the magnitude of this lost investment, bear in mind that the direct cost of training a single PhD in the US can easily exceed $100,000 and approach $150,000. Consider this: since 2010 faculty members on TTS have seen exactly one revision of their pay scales, whereas their counterparts on the traditional BPS, which comes with a pension, have seen increases in almost all of those years.

Universities in the Middle East have been more than happy to siphon off that talent. There are now some universities in that region with departments where 40, 50, 60 percent of faculty comprise Pakistani PhDs that were trained on the HEC’s dime, fulfilled their bonds and, unable to make ends meet, moved out. Some simply fail to integrate in the local work culture after studying years in the West, with at least one case of attempted suicide known to me. None of this is news and long predates the current HEC leadership; I wrote about this issue as far back as October 2015 (‘The absconding academia’, TNS, Oct 18, 2015).

The now-outgoing management at the HEC is also being accused of dragging its feet on the disbursement of research grants. Again, by itself, spending money is not a measure of success, when thrown away on half-baked ideas and poorly written research proposals. However, it is true that the HEC’s major research grant programme, the National Research Program for Universities (NRPU), used to take years to get back with a decision. In numerous cases the decisions have come after faculty members that submitted a proposal had already moved on to other workplaces. This too is not a new issue but has been the case for at least a decade.

I worked extensively with the education departments of at least 20 public-sector universities between 2011 and 2013 as part of a research support programme. One of the most frequent criticisms of HEC research grant programmes was their slow response. Faculty lamented that they would rather apply for funding to any external agency. Revamping of the NRPU review process has actually been one of the items this administration addressed.

The outgoing leadership is also being accused of hiring too few PhD qualified faculty members. The fact is that the HEC has seen cuts to its recurrent budget (soon after the PTI came into power, it was communicated to the HEC that it would receive only 50 percent of its recurring budget). Much of the recurrent budget covers salaries of recently hired TTS faculty members of public universities. A few years ago, things were so bad that some universities had to delay salary payments for months and others were told to come up with innovative ways to generate enough funds to cover the bulk of their staffs’ salaries.

All the talk of revising salaries of faculty members treading water for the last seven years is just that – talk – if the government is unwilling to commit necessary resources but is instead content bleeding the manpower it trained at great expense. I wrote about this issue as recently as April, 2019 (‘Only gentlemen need apply’, April 25, 2019).

Criticism that this HEC leadership did not set up enough new universities is equally misguided when you consider the lack of support for the HEC’s development budget. You cannot expect the HEC to start major new projects when it is struggling to keep the lights on in existing universities.

A lot of resources were squandered in the name of kickstarting research in colleges and universities that had not produced a single decent publication in the preceding decades and were unprepared to do so still. Finally, after staying the course for entirely too long, a few years ago the current/outgoing HEC leadership decided to do the commonsensical thing – acknowledge that not all colleges and universities are equally capable, that different institutions have their own strengths and weaknesses and not all need to run doctoral programs. Universities can be combinations of small / medium / large, public / private, research / non-research, general / professional. Colleges can be of the liberal arts, community, professional, military or general types. Again, this is not a new problem, and I wrote about it as far back as September, 2016 (‘Straightjacketing universities’, TNS, Sep 2016).

The HEC leadership acknowledged this and developed a three-tier system for higher education institutions. By expecting only 30 Tier-I institutions to run doctoral programmes and conduct research, resources could be focused where they are most likely to have an impact. Tier-II institutions will have the mission to deliver good university education, not requiring doctoral research. Finally, Tier-III institutions will continue to deliver two-year training programmes (Associate Bachelor’s programmes), creating a clear distinction between two and four-year Bachelor’s programmes. This will also curtail the number of zombie-doctoral programmes that exist on paper or produce poorly trained PhDs.

There are also calls that certain knowledge areas are being neglected. The buzzwords being bandied around most frequently these days include artificial intelligence, machine learning, cryptocurrencies, fintech, blockchain, IoT, drones etc. Undoubtedly, there are emerging areas that will produce a good number of job opportunities in the future. However, some of these may prove to be fads, or technologies that will not take off.

The mid-2000s should serve as a cautionary tale here. Back then, liberalization of Pakistan’s telecom sector saw the entrance of several new cellular service providers in the market, which created a temporary spike in demand for electrical engineers. A lot of universities were too quick on the draw and launched bachelor’s programmes like ‘Telecommunications Engineering’ and other fancy, narrowly specialized titles that were little different from electrical engineering programmes. The temporary spike in demand was quickly met by a glut of supply, and only a few years later many of these programmes were shuttered again. For this reason, universities need to exercise care in identifying long-term trends and refrain from chasing buzzwords and ephemeral market trends.

At the undergraduate level, sufficient expertise to get new graduates started in each of the technologies listed above as examples can be provided through only one or two elective courses each if they are part of an undergraduate electrical engineering / computer science program with sound fundamentals. Expertise in artificial intelligence, machine learning builds on a sound understanding of linear algebra, optimization theory and statistics which are already part of most programs. IoT and drones require sound fundamentals in networking and control systems, also already part of most curricula. Similarly, other new technologies do not require whole new programmes, just electives serving as a solid bridge and a genuine desire to learn.

The criticism being heaped on the HEC is giving the impression that all these problems originated only in the last three years. That is patently false. It is important to untangle the timeline of events to see that the enduring problems in higher education have their origins in policies written decades earlier.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.