Pakistan’s Universities – Problems and Solutions

by Pervez Hoodbhoy (first published in Dawn):

Screenhunter_12General Pervez Musharraf’s regime boasts of its successes in science and education at home and abroad. Recently, I saw Pakistan’s successes trumpeted by a large official delegation headed by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, the chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) at a conference in Trieste, Italy. They came to address a special session on science development in Pakistan – the only country that had requested and paid for such special treatment at the conference. Those who did not know about the state of science in Pakistan were amazed by the claims made. Those who knew better were stunned by the flood of self-serving lies, half-truths and deceit.

The claims made were several. A 300 percent jump in research publications shows that academic activity in Pakistan has vastly increased; nine new engineering universities with European teaching faculty will soon be established; the 3000 Pakistani students sent overseas for higher degrees will revolutionize the university system upon return; Ph.Ds produced annually from Pakistani universities will soon approach the spectacular figure of 1500; mathematics is now a strong discipline in Pakistan; and so forth.

The truth is very different. Even though the spending on higher education has increased 15 times over the last five years, the improvements have been cosmetic. Genuine science in Pakistan has actually shrunk, not grown, over the last three decades. The trend has not been reversed. Euphoric claims notwithstanding, public university education in Pakistan remains miserably backward by international standards. Its real problems are yet to be touched.

Take the HEC’s first claim: the 3-fold increase in Pakistani academic
publications. Fantastically large per-paper monetary rewards to university
teachers – a practice not adopted anywhere else in the world for excellent
reasons – have indeed boosted publication rates. But publishing more
papers is not the same as doing more research. Instead, the high rewards
have caused an explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property,
publication of trivial results and falsified data, and publication of
slightly different versions of the same paper in different journals. Most
published papers are worthless academically and scientifically.

The reader can readily verify the last point. All that is needed is a
computer and an internet connection. Simply type
into your browser, and then the name of any individual scientist or
scholar you want. (Academic databases even more comprehensive than Google
are available but not free.) A list of publications of that person,
together with a count of the number of times his/her papers have been
cited by other scholars, will be displayed. Remember that a piece of
scientific work is important only if it is useful to other scientists, or
to industry in the form of patents that lead to new products (a separate
database exists for that). So, in a matter of seconds, one can see which
individuals are considered important by the world of science and academia.

The results of such database searches are eye-opening. A majority of
papers by Pakistani authors, even if published in international journals
by some hook or crook, have exactly zero citations (once self-citations
are removed). Such papers have contributed nothing. They may just as well
have not been written. The average number of citations per Pakistani paper
is 3.41 (includes self-citation), which is much below that in
scientifically advanced countries.

Still more shocking is the citation record of some of Pakistan’s most
well-advertised scientists, whose relentless self-promotion at government
expense would be considered a crime in another country. While they have
hundreds of papers and books to their credit, most of these have
zero-citations. Others in their field seem to have scarcely noticed any of
their work. On the other hand the reader can check that about 25-30 other
Pakistani scientists, who are unadvertised, relatively unknown, and have
published far fewer papers, nevertheless have much better citation records
and a moderately good international standing in their respective fields.

Now for the HEC’s nine Pak-European universities project: This is a
stunning disaster. The most advanced university (in terms of construction
and planning) was the French engineering university in Karachi. Named
UESTP-France, with a completion cost of Rs. 26 billion rupees, it was to
have begun functioning in October 2007. There is still no official
explanation for why this did not happen, no new date has been set, and no
account given of the money already spent.

On the face of it, making Pak-European universities sounds like a
wonderful idea. Pakistan would pay for France, Sweden, Italy, and some
other European countries to help set up, manage, and provide professors
for new universities in Pakistan. It would be expensive – Pakistan would
have to pay the full development costs, recurrent expenses, and euro-level
salaries (plus 40% markup) for all the foreign professors and
vice-chancellors. But it would still be worth it because the large
presence of European professors teaching in these Pakistani universities
would ensure good teaching. High-standard degrees would subsequently be
awarded by institutions in the respective European countries.

Even commonsense said that the project could not work. Perhaps one can
persuade beefy mercenaries of the French Foreign Legion to go to some
country where suicide bombings happen daily and killing of ordinary
citizens by terrorists is routine. But it takes an enormous leap of faith
to think that respectable academics from France – or any other European
country for that matter – will want to live and teach in Pakistan for a
year or more. Travel advisories issued by several European governments
warn against even brief visits. That the French professors did not turn up
at UESTP-France is scarcely surprising. But, lost to their mad fantasies,
HEC planners are now working on the vain assumption that the Germans and
Swedes are made of sterner stuff than the French.

A wiser leadership would have aimed for one properly planned new
engineering university, set up under the European Union. It would have
sought external help for adding engineering departments to existing
universities, as well as to massively upgrade existing ones. But these
relatively modest goals are unacceptable to the present HEC leadership
that believes, like the Musharraf regime as a whole, in grand plans rather
than practical, feasible, reforms.

Showing the hollowness of the other official claims of progress would take
more space than available here. Slick PowerPoint presentations by HEC
officials throw one figure after another at dizzying speed giving the
impression of fantastic progress. But the intelligent listener must ask
many questions: does it make sense to select thousands of students on the
basis of a substandard high-school level numeracy and literacy test, and
then send them for an expensive graduate-level education in Europe? Will
the quality of Pakistani graduates not be further degraded by pushing Ph.D
production far beyond the capability of the present universities?

It is time to end the fetish of buying tons of expensive scientific
equipment that, at the end of it all, produce only zero-citation papers
and zero patents. Curiously, after a bunch of projects were exposed as
phony, the HEC broke with its past practice and now no longer puts on its
website details of HEC-funded projects. It is also time to stop HEC
officials and HEC delegates from gallivanting across the globe at public
expense on the vaguest of excuses for “fact-finding” missions and

There must be an independent investigation of the HEC’s plans and
financing, a review of its programs, and a full audit of accounts. The
inquiry should be jointly done by the future government through the PAC
and NAB, assisted by a citizens committee. Individual whims and personal
ambitions must be checked to protect the national interest. Pakistan is a
poor country although, looking at the HEC’s spending patterns, one would
conclude the opposite.

WHAT REAL REFORM REQUIRES: The record-setting increase in the budget for
higher education – which shot up from Rs 3.8 billion in 2002 to Rs 33.7
billion in 2007 – has led to little beyond cosmetic changes. So, what can
be done?

Solutions are needed at three distinct levels – determining correct
funding priorities, implementing approved plans and projects responsibly,
and, most importantly, inducing changes in values to promote and enable
real learning.

Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual
whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher
education (about 0.8 million) study in about 700 colleges. These colleges
receive pitifully small funding compared to universities. During
2001-2004, the funds annually allocated to colleges averaged a miserable
sum of Rs 0.48 billion and the spending per college student was only one
sixth that for a university student. Subsequently this has become worse.
It is no surprise then that public colleges are in desperate shape with
dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and laboratory and library
facilities that exist only in name.

Meanwhile, many public universities are awash in funds. They have gone on
a shopping binge for all kinds of gadgetry – fax machines, fancy
multimedia projectors, and electricity-guzzling airconditioners. But it
would be hard to argue that any of this has served to improve teaching
quality even marginally. Worse, the availability of “free money” has led
to the pursuit of numerous madcap projects such as the HEC’s hugely
expensive, but failed, attempt to bring in hundreds of fearful European
university professors to teach in a country where suicide bombers kill at

The beggarly treatment of colleges compared to universities is often
justified on grounds that universities perform research while colleges do
not. But, notwithstanding a few honorable exceptions, this “research” has
added little to the stock of existing knowledge as judged by the
international community of scholars.  Nevertheless, in 2005/2006
university research funding totaled a whopping Rs 0.342 billion. Past
experience shows that much of the money will be used to buy expensive
research equipment that will find little if any real use.

Instead of continuing to pay for dubious research, funding priorities must
shift to improving teaching quality, especially in colleges. Pakistani
university and college students, as well as their teachers, are far below
the internationally accepted levels in terms of basic subject
understanding. As one indicator, performance scores of Pakistanis on the
US Graduate Record Examinations, which test subject basics, are miserably
poor compared to students from India or China.  For example, of the 56
M.Phil and Ph.D students who recently took the physics exam from the best
physics department in the country – that at Quaid-e-Azam University – none
was able to get even a semi-respectable score in this entry-level exam.

Because bad teaching quality largely comes from having teachers with
insufficient knowledge of their subject, it is important both to have
better teacher selection mechanisms and to create large-scale
teacher-training academies in every province. Established with
international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as
trainers from across the country and from our neighbours. It is hard to
see any trainers coming from western countries, although one should try to
get them. This effort will cost money and take time – perhaps on the order
of a billion dollars over 5 years. These high-quality institutions should
have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through
concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasize
basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. They should award
degrees to create an incentive for teachers to go there and to do well.

Until a sufficiently large number of adequate university teachers can be
generated by the above (and various other) means, the senseless policy of
making new universities must be discontinued. The HEC prides itself in
almost doubling the number of public universities over 6 years. But there
is nothing to be gained from a department of English where the
department’s head cannot speak or write a grammatically correct
non-trivial sentence of English; a physics department where the head is
confused about the operation of an incandescent light bulb; a mathematics
department where graduate students have problems with elementary surds and
roots; or a biology department where evolution is thought to be
new-fangled and quite unnecessary to teach as part of modern biology.

Better academic planning and management at the national level – which has
no monetary cost – is crucial to having higher education institutions that
actually function. Major quality improvements could result from using
nation-wide standardized tests for student admission into higher education
institutions; teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials
effectively; and designing standardized teaching laboratories that may be
efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.

But implementation of even the best plans comes to naught without good
management at the institutional level. Good leaders have made a difference
in their respective institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a patronage
system because of which unqualified and unsuitable military men, as well
as bureaucrats, are often appointed as vice-chancellors, principals, and
registrars. Therefore most institutional heads are inept and vital tasks
remain unimplemented. These include enforcement of academic ethics,
creating the culture of civilized debate on campuses, encouragement of
community work, etc. The harm done by badly chosen senior administrators
cannot be undone by any amount of money.

DEEPER ISSUES: Sixty years of consistent failure force us to search for
reasons that go beyond fiscal and administrative issues. What sets us
apart from the developed world, or even India and Iran? In Pakistan the
dead hand of tradition stands squarely in the way of modern education and
a modern mindset that relies on critical thinking. The educational system,
shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages
questioning and stresses obedience.

In seeking change, it will be important to break the tyranny of the
teacher, a relic of pre-modern social values. Closed minds cannot
innovate, create art and literature, or do science. Most Pakistani
students memorize an arbitrary set of rules and an endless number of facts
and say that X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook
says. (I grind my teeth whenever a master’s or Ph.D student in my
university class gives me this argument!)

There has to be social acceptance of modern education which, at its
fundamentals, is entirely about individual liberty, willingness to accept
change, intellectual honesty, and constructive rebellion. Critical thought
allows individuals to make a revolutionary difference and to reinvent the
future. Else they will merely repeat the dysfunction of the past.

To open minds, the change must begin at the school level. Good pedagogy
requires encouraging the spirit of healthy questioning in the classroom.
It should therefore be normal practice for teachers to raise such
questions as: How do we know? What is important to measure? How to check
the correctness of measurements? What is the evidence? How to make sense
out of your results? Is there a counter explanation, or perhaps a simpler
one? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such
critical questions and framing reasoned answers.

Reforming higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if considers the
totality of problems, such as outlined here, and if solution strategies
are pursued with honesty and integrity. This task has yet to begin.


HEC SPOKESPERSON (10 Jan, 2008):

This is with reference to the article “Sham university reforms” by Pervez
Hoodboy (Jan 2). Since its formation in 2002, the Higher Education
Commission has made remarkable progress, implementing the much needed
reforms. These include: setting of stringent requirements for the
appointment and promotion of faculty members, strict quality control of
PhD programmes, establishment of a digital library providing free access
to 23,000 international journals to all public sector universities.

It has also introduced an e-books programme so that every public sector
university now has access to 45,000 textbooks from 220 international
publishers, has initiated a programme of live lectures from
technologically advanced countries through video conferencing in real time
and with full inter-activity.

Moreover, changes in the salary structure of academics under the tenure
track system have been made through which salaries of scholars active in
research have been increased significantly.

Most universities in Pakistan, including the Quaid-i-Azam University, have
adopted this system. Introduction of a foreign faculty hiring programme
through which the “brain drain” from Pakistan has been converted into a
“brain gain” with over 200 eminent faculty members, who had worked for
most of their lives in technologically advanced countries, have now
returned to join universities in Pakistan.

These changes have been implemented and they are changing the landscape of
our universities to the benefit of the nation.

The HEC reforms have been internationally praised. A WB report says that
“these positive reforms already have benefited the universities”. It goes
on to state that the “HEC has placed quality improvement of the higher
education sub-sector at the centre of its agenda” and that “the programmes
spelled out in the medium-term development framework of the HEC are an
impressive set of initiatives”.

Praising the leadership provided by Prof (Dr) Atta-ur-Rahman within the
HEC, it states that “the HEC has gained authority since its inception in
part because of its own strong and professional leadership, independent
board and ample funding” and that “still a young institution, the HEC
already has a legacy. Since its inception, it has been startlingly active
and has shaken up the world of the universities”.

These reforms were presented at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences of
the Developing World (TWAS) in Trieste by a delegation of leading
scientists of Pakistan comprising Dr Amir Mohammad, Prof (Dr) Sheikh
Riazuddin, Prof Iqbal Chaudhary, Prof Qasim Mehdi, Prof Tassawar Hayat and
Dr Nasiruddin.

The presentations highlighted the achievements that Pakistan has made
during last five years through the HEC programmes. By calling these
presentations half-truths etc, Dr Hoodbhoy does no justice to Pakistan.

His stand is that increase in our research output has arisen due to
“explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, publication of
trivial results and falsified data, and publication of slightly different
versions of the same paper in different journals”.

This is wrong. It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and
eliminate plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it.

By trivialising more than 1,600 research articles from Pakistan in the
world’s top journals in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology, the
writer only exposes his own biases.

Mr Hoodbhoy is also critical of the initiative to establish a number of
new universities of engineering, science and technology. Such universities
take years to plan and implement.

The French-sponsored university has been deliberately delayed to enable
the formation of a strong consortium of French universities. Calling this
delay a “stunning disaster” is again an example of a typical exaggeration.

He also wrongly says that there has been extravagant funding of our higher
education sector. The budget of all 57 public sector universities in
Pakistan put together is $500 million, which is about 40 per cent less
than that of the National University of Singapore.

SAMINA WAQAR Director-General (Public Relations), HEC, Islamabad


The HEC has, as expected, responded to my expose (Dawn, 2 Jan) of its
unconscionable squandering of public funds by trotting out its usual list
of claimed achievements (Dawn, 10 Jan). But this spiritless reply does not
address the issues I raised, except distantly and peripherally. Instead,
it takes refuge in a 2006 World Bank report, issued by a WB team led by
Benoit Millot, that lavishes praise upon the HEC for having effected
“quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector”, and for having
revolutionized Pakistans universities.

I find this fascinating and disturbing. This is a perfect example where
two institutions are driven by shared needs — the WB to lend and the HEC
to spend. While the WB report is printed on glossy paper, is written in
fine English, and has beautiful graphics, it is fundamentally flawed
because it contains no meaningful data on the quality of education in
Pakistani universities. Browsing though WB publications, I simply did not
see any report that purports to be a scientifically performed survey on
this specific matter.

When and how, may I ask, did the WB check the quality of faculty or that
of the student body across Pakistani universities?  Has it surveyed
library and laboratory facilities, the content of university courses, the
standard of examination papers, the presence (or lack thereof) of academic
colloquia and seminars on campuses, etc? Was any assessment made of the
number of days in a year that the universities actually functioned, the
suitability of those appointed as vice-chancellors, employer satisfaction
with university graduates, etc? These are crucial quality indicators.
Unless one has reasonably reliable data on such matters, the opinions
expressed in the quoted WB report are simply vacuous.

If the WB has indeed carried out a relevant survey, I would be most
grateful to know the reference to such work and apologize in advance for
any hurt caused. On the other hand, if there is no such work, then I would
like to know what the WBs $1500 per-day education consultants do in a
third-world country beyond cutting and pasting from official reports. If
other sections of the World Bank operate similarly, then one fears for

The HEC has picked many numbers that suit its purposes but has not
attempted to see if they are meaningful. It is unfortunate that the HEC
spokesperson accuses me of trivializing all 1600 research papers published
in recent times. I did not. Instead, I merely showed that the interested
reader — using the free Google.Scholar data base mentioned in my article
— can judge each one of these papers to see if anyone in the world has
found them useful or interesting. Unfortunately, all but a tiny fraction
have zero citations.

To my mind, publishing even two dozen papers yearly — provided they are
highly original and well-cited — would have a far healthier impact on our
universities than the hundreds of junk papers generated by the
government’s per-paper reward scheme. While the spokesperson lamely claims
that “It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and eliminate
plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it”, no such thing is
evident. On the contrary, newspapers in Pakistan and abroad are full of
stories about Pakistani academics who freely plagiarize materials across
the globe as they rush to grab the rewards.

Finally, I do believe that there is an alternative direction in which to
improve and expand higher education, and which could gainfully use the
huge sums now allocated to the HEC. For this, the interested reader is
referred to part-II of my article (Dawn, 12-01-2008).

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.