The highs and lows of higher education

Wednesday / Jun 01 2016

Newspaper : The News

The latest QS higher education institution rankings may have come as a shock to many. According to these rankings Pakistan is now ranked right at the bottom of the table in the higher education sector.

We also don’t have a single university ranked among the top 500 of the world in the latest Times Higher Education (UK) rankings. This is a huge fall after a period of remarkable progress during 2002-2008, which was acknowledged in several independent international reports published by the World Bank, USAID, British Council etc. What went wrong?

Pakistan made a strong and visionary beginning to establish a knowledge economy by setting up the Higher Education Commission in October 2002; I was appointed as its founding chairman. At that time we did not have a single university ranked in the top 500 of the world. In a short six-year period of remarkable progress, unprecedented anywhere in the world, the landscape of universities changed dramatically.

When I resigned in protest in October 2008 (because scholarships of our students studying for PhD degrees in foreign universities were blocked by the PPP government), there were several universities that were ranked among the top 300, 400 and 500 of the world by the Times Higher Education (UK) rankings. These included Karachi University at 223, NUST at 250 and UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world in the natural sciences rankings, while NUST had an overall ranking of 370 in the general rankings.

The disaster that followed during 2008-2013 was anticipated by the world’s leading journal ‘Nature’ which had warned the PPP government when it replaced Musharraf. In an editorial focused on Pakistan on August 28, 2008, it stated,: “the Peoples Party has some learning to do. Its previous record on science is among the most misguided of all Pakistan’s elected governments – A return to the pre-Musharraf era would send Pakistan back to the scientific stone age. The new government needs to recognize that regardless of how much it disliked him, the General bequeathed it a foundation in science and technology on which it can build.”

Alas, this is precisely what happened. All the progress made was rapidly undone as the budgets of universities were slashed during 2008-2013 after 200 parliamentarians with forged degrees howled for blood when the HEC refused to recognise their forged degrees. A federal minister of education was appointed by the PPP government; his own degrees were forged. A notification was issued by the government, fragmenting the Higher Education Commission and handing over the pieces to the provinces. As a citizen, I decided to fight it out and, along with Marvi Memon, Senator Azam Swati and Prof G A Miana, we filed a petition in the Supreme Court with the plea that higher education was protected as a federal subject under the constitution.

The Supreme Court upheld our petition and saved the HEC from complete disaster. However, in direct contempt of this decision, two provincial governments, Sindh and Punjab, went ahead and formed the provincial Higher Education Commissions anyway. Who cares for decisions of the Supreme Court in this land of the pure? Marvi Memon and I again filed a petition in the Sindh High Court against the formation of the Sindh HEC in February 2013, but it is now June 2016 and the petition remains undecided despite several urgent hearing petitions.

Admittedly, the present government has increased funds but they are still far too little when you compare them with those of good universities in Singapore, Hong Kong or Korea. The budgets of the best universities of Pakistan such as QAU, NUST and COMSATS are Rs3-5 billion annually while the budget of the National University of Singapore is about Rs200 billion annually. With three HECs operating simultaneously – one federal and two provincial ones established by the Sindh and Punjab governments – the scene is truly chaotic as no one knows who is responsible for what.

We have no one else to blame but ourselves for not being able to sustain the rapid period of development achieved during 2002-2008. The efforts of the present chairman of the HEC in this turbulent scenario are praiseworthy. The government must close down the provincial HECs, and provide enhanced funding to strengthen our schools colleges and universities as promised in its manifesto as well as provide a three-fold increase in funding to the federal HEC so that we can transition to a knowledge-based economy.

The biggest challenge to education in Pakistan is the lack of competent school, college and university teachers who have a thorough understanding of the basic principles of their respective subjects. In Singapore all school teachers must have passed an A-Level (London/Cambridge) examination before they are eligible to become teachers. We should do the same. The shortage of good teachers can at least partly be addressed by using online courses that are available free and can be readily integrated into the teaching programmes. These high quality video lectures are available from the world’s top experts at school, college and university levels, and can change the ways classrooms will function in the future.

The MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on April 4, 2001. It made available online all the educational materials from its undergraduate- and graduate-level courses. Subsequently Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and many other universities have launched such courses but many of these were commercial. Other important MOOCs include ‘Udacity’, ‘Coursera’ and ‘FutureLearn’.

In December 2013, after permission from many of these institutions including MIT, Yale, Stanford, California and others we at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi initiated an integrated version of MOOCs (iMOOCs) that offers school, college and university level courses free of charge. The programme was launched by the president of Pakistan in December 2013. It is a huge treasure of knowledge and is available – free – at www.lej4learning.com.pk

Pakistan’s higher education sector can still be revived. The government needs to act before it is too late by imposing a national education emergency and diverting funds from other sectors to schools, colleges and universities, while also addressing governance issues.


The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).