The HEC revisited

Wednesday / May 04 2016

Newspaper : The News

On July 22, 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arranged for a detailed presentation to be made to him, regarding the spectacular progress that Pakistan was making since 2002 – under my leadership as chairman of the HEC – in uplifting universities and research institutions.

The presentation was made by Prof C N R Rao, head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the prime minister of India, and the winner of India’s highest national award, the Bharat Ratna. An article was published in the ‘Hindustan Times’, on July 23, 2006 about the presentation to the Indian prime minister. What was Pakistan doing to raise serious concerns in India, and to warrant a presentation at the highest political level in that country?

After taking over as the founding chairman of the HEC, and with first Dr Akram Sheikh and later Dr Sohail Naqvi at my side as the executive directors, we launched a dynamic programme in 2002-2008 to transform our universities into genuine centres of excellence. University standards are determined not by beautiful buildings but by beautiful minds. The heart of a university is its faculty, and it is the creativity of the faculty that determines its world rankings.

Therefore, about 11,000 scholarships were awarded to the brightest students. Of this some 5,000 scholarships were for PhD degrees at top universities of the world, while others were for post-doctoral training or for sandwich PhD programmes. A serious problem in the past had been that students sent abroad by the government preferred to stay abroad due to better opportunities. This was a huge loss to the national exchequer. So several measures were undertaken to attract them back by creating an enabling environment.

A new contractual system of tenure track appointments of faculty members with an international review of productivity was enforced, under which the salaries of the faculty members were raised to several times of those of federal ministers. Tax rates for all faculty members in public and private universities were reduced from 35 percent to only five percent, thereby giving a boost to their take-home pay. Students returning with PhD degrees from abroad were given the opportunity of applying for research grants of up to $100,000, one year before their date of return, so that even if they joined a weaker university with few facilities, they would be able to initiate research.

A digital library was established, providing free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers – facilities that were not available to most universities in the US, Europe and Asia at that time. A system of ‘open access instrumentation’ allowed them to have free nation-wide access to sophisticated instrumentation, with the analytical charges being paid by HEC. These measures led to a 97.5 percent return rate of scholars sent abroad. To benefit from high quality academics abroad, a foreign faculty hiring programme was launched. Some 600 top academics came to Pakistan under these programs.

When the HEC was established in 2002, not a single university of Pakistan was ranked among the top 500 universities of the world. When I resigned in protest in 2008 (due to the suspension of the grants of some 5,000 students studying abroad on HEC scholarships), several universities were ranked among the top 400 and 500 of the world, according to the Times Higher Education UK Rankings, with NUST (Islamabad) at 273 in the world, UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world and Karachi University (in the natural sciences) at 223 in the world. Others included Quaid-e-Azam University (Islamabad) and Mehran Engineering University (Hyderabad). Research publications in journals with ISI impact factors increased from only about 800 per year in the year 2000, to 6,250 per year by 2011, and about 10,000 by 2015, equalling those from India, if the output is compared per million population.

The emphasis placed on quality, rather than just quantity, was reflected in the following USAID report, published after a national evaluation of our programmes:

“One of the most striking aspects of HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities. Expectations were set high from the outset. Quality goal targets were set as international standards and expectations. Faculty promotions, publications, PhD dissertations, research grants, and many of the HEC programs were subject to these standards including evaluation by external peer reviewers… In keeping with its focus on quality, the attitude of the leadership of the HEC was that ‘quality is much more important than quantity’.”

Prof Michael Rode, Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development, and professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who visited Pakistan on a number of occasions, wrote in 2008: “Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years.

“After the formation of the Higher Education Commission, a silent revolution occurred and probably the best digital library in the world was set up in Pakistan… Such a nation-wide access to the latest literature is not even available in Europe or USA today, and Pakistan demonstrated that given honest, dedicated and dynamic leadership, as provided by Prof. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman and his eminent colleagues led by Dr. Sohail Naqvi, it was possible to achieve the almost impossible.” (

After my resignation in 2008, the funds of the HEC were slashed and attempts were made by some 200 corrupt politicians with forged degrees, who were members of our assemblies, to dissolve the HEC. Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld my petition and the HEC survived, although it went through a most difficult period in 2008-2013. The result is that today we don’t have a single university in the top 500 of the world.

Hopefully, the situation will soon improve under the valiant efforts of the current chairman of the HEC, Prof Mukhtar Ahmed, as the current government has restored the budget and is again supporting the programmes launched in 2002-2008.

A continuity of policies to strengthen education as a whole and higher education in particular is vitally important for Pakistan to emerge from its economic problems and establish a strong knowledge economy.