Ranking higher education

Wednesday / Mar 29 2017

Newspaper : The News

In October 2002, when I left the position of federal minister of science and technology and took up my new assignment as the founding chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), not a single university was ranked among the top 500, or even among the top 1,000 of the world, as per international rankings.

Six years later in October 2008, when I resigned in protest (after the scholarships of thousands of students studying abroad on HEC scholarships were stopped by the previous government), several of our universities were ranked among the top 250, 300, 400 and 500 of the world, according to the Times Higher Education rankings for 2008. Karachi University was then ranked at the 223th position, the National University of Science and Technology (Nust) in Islamabad at the 250th and the University of Engineering and Technology (in Lahore) at the 281th position in world rankings for the natural sciences.

Nust had an overall ranking of 350 in the world. Never before had so many institutions reached such levels within a short period of six years. Unfortunately these achievements were followed by disaster. The previous government, prodded by 200 parliamentarians with forged degrees, tried to dismantle the HEC and notifications were issued to this effect in 2010.

I had already resigned as chairman of the HEC a year-and-a-half earlier, but decided to contest the matter as an ordinary citizen. My petition – in which the co-petitioners included Marvi Memon, Senator Azam Swati, and Professor G A Miana – was brought before the Supreme Court. The petition stated that the government’s notification was illegal. It was accepted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2011, which declared that higher education was fully protected as a federal subject under the 18th Amendment to the constitution.

Although the HEC survived, the period between 2008 and 2013 wrecked many of the programmes initiated by the commission. As a result, our universities slid away from all international world rankings and are now visible only in Asian rankings. The current government has restored and significantly increased funds for higher education and the HEC is now being ably led by Professor Mukhtar Ahmad, my former colleague at the commission. However, it will take years to repair the damage that has been done.

What must we do now to restore the international rankings of our universities? First, the vice-chancellor of a university has a key role to play and he or she should be selected with great care. He or she must not only be an outstanding academic but a true leader who is able to mobilise academics, the administrative staff as well as students. In Pakistan, the search committee process has largely failed as the provincial governments tend to select academically weak candidates as members of the search committees. These members tend to ignore merit and appoint vice-chancellors who are docile and will bow down to the wishes of the provincial governments.

It is important that some key performance indicators (KPIs) are given to the vice-chancellors when they are appointed and these criteria should be reviewed every six months. The KPIs could include increasing the PhD level faculty to student ratio (the recommended ratio is 1:15) and contributing to socio-economic development by establishing strong linkages with the industrial, agricultural and other sectors. They could also include strengthening the ORIC, financial management and fund raising, the rigorous implementation of the HEC’s quality assurance measures and the implementation of the Tenure Track System for all new faculty appointments. The increase in PhD output and research publications in impact factor journals as well as citations, patents and books produced by the faculty are also an important performance indicator.

Second, networking with our academic diaspora abroad can have a significant impact on the quality of teaching and research. This can be achieved by encouraging local PhD level faculty members to appoint foreign professors from internationally-recognised institutions as co-supervisors. These co-supervisors should be offered opportunities to visit Pakistan at least twice a year to supervise the students’ research work and conduct fortnightly meetings with Pakistani students/local PhD supervisors over Skype.

Third, to improve the quality of teaching and research, quality assurance cells need to be strengthened at all universities through which weak and non-performing academic members should be detected and replaced so that the university faculty improves progressively. An excellent faculty evaluation matrix has been developed and implemented at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University. The institute is generally recognised as the top research institute of Pakistan and was recently chosen as the Unesco Center of Excellence in the region.

A major issue that needs to be urgently addressed by the Sindh High Court involves the decision to establish a provincial HEC. This was done in blatant contempt of the Supreme Court’s decision which had ruled that higher education was a federal subject under the 18th Amendment. My petition has been pending before the Sindh High Court for more than four years on this matter of public importance. The decision has created much chaos in all universities in Sindh. Many of them are confused about which commission to obey and which to ignore. This has, in turn, accelerated the deterioration of universities in Sindh and the issue needs to be resolved urgently by the Sindh High Court in light of the existing Supreme Court decision.

Another issue that needs to be tackled is the pathetic state of our colleges. They come under the purview of the four provincial ministries of education and, in the case of those located in Islamabad, under the federal ministry of education. The HEC has no control over them unless they have a degree-awarding status. The funds allocated to the colleges are abysmally low and the students that they churn out are, by and large, completely unfit for admission to universities or for jobs. A major reform is required in this critical sector.

Unfortunately, we have our priorities all wrong. While we are investing huge amounts into infrastructure projects, the investments that we are making in science and technology are ridiculously low. The total development budget of our science and technology ministry is only Rs1.8 billion this year. This is a sure recipe for self-annihilation as India’s science budget for 2017 is Rs840 billion – about 460 times that of Pakistan.

If we do not wake up, India will soon dominate the region through its economic and military might. This is, therefore, a matter of grave national security. We must build top-class universities and link our research with industrial and agricultural development. This is the only way forward for Pakistan to build a strong knowledge economy through investments in education, science, technology and innovation. Only then can we unleash the tremendous creative potential of over a hundred million youth of Pakistan below the age of 20.