Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment

The journal Nature has just published a paper entitled “Pakistan's reform experiment” by Athar Osama, Adil Najam, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Syed Zulfiqar Gilani & Christopher King. Unfortunately, the paper is only available to subscribers to the journal. The editors of Nature have, however, also published an editorial in the same issue about Pakistan's education reforms:

Eight years ago, a task force advising Pakistan's former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, laid out a bold plan to revitalize the country's moribund research system: initiate a fivefold increase in public funding for universities, with a special emphasis on science, technology and engineering. The proposal was a radical departure from conventional wisdom on the economics of developing nations, which favours incremental investments. Sudden surges of cash are held to be dangerous in poorer countries, which often lack the institutions or the calibre of people required to make the most of such a windfall, and the money can easily be wasted or fall prey to corruption.

Nonetheless, Musharraf agreed to the proposal. The reforms began in 2003. And the results, which have now earned a qualified thumbs-up from a group of experts in science and education policy (see page 38), offer some valuable lessons for other developing nations.

More here. Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan's most respected scientists, and a well-known social and political analyst and activist, has been very critical of Pakistan's Higher Education Commision in the past, and he sent me a copy of a letter that he has written to Nature about the above-mentioned paper and their editorial. I am (with Pervez's permission) publishing it below. I shall also ask Adil Najam (one of the co-authors of the paper, and a 3QD friend) to respond to Pervez's letter, and if he does so, I will publish his response as well. This is Pervez's letter:

“Pakistan's Reform Experiment” (Nature, V461, page 38, 3 September 2009)
gives the impression of providing a factual balance sheet of Pakistan's
higher education under General Pervez Musharraf's former government.
Unfortunately, several critical omissions indicate a partisan bias.

Mention of the billions wasted on mindless prestige mega-projects is
noticeably absent. Example: nine new universities were hastily conceived
and partially constructed, but abandoned and finally scrapped after it
became obvious that it was impossible to provide them with the most
crucial ingredient – trained faculty. Similarly, fantastically expensive
scientific equipment, imported with funds from the Higher Education
Commission, remain hopelessly under-utilized many years later. They litter
the country's length and breadth. For instance, my university has been
forced to house a “souped-up” Van de Graaf accelerator facility, purchased
in 2005 with HEC funds. A research purpose is still being sought in 2009.

The authors conveniently choose not to mention that the 400% claimed
increase in the number of publications was largely a consequence of giving
huge payments to professors for publishing in international journals,
irrespective of actual substance and quality. Not surprisingly these
cash-per-paper injections had the effect of producing a plagiarism
pandemic, one that is still out of control. In a country where academic
ethics are poor and about a third of all students cheat in examinations,
penalties for plagiarism by teachers and researchers are virtually

Citing Thomson Scientific, the authors claim a large rise in the “relative
impact” in some disciplines, based upon citation levels of papers
published between 2003 and 2007. But did the authors try to eliminate
self-citations (a deliberate ploy) from this count? If they had – as I did
using an available option in the Thomson Scientific package – they might
actually have found the opposite result.

While the authors laud the increase in the salaries of university
professors by the HEC, they pay no attention to the disparities thus
created. The salary of a full professor (after the raises) can be 20-30
times that of an average Pakistani school teacher. Money raining down from
the skies has created a new dynamic as well. Naked greed is now destroying
the moral fibre of Pakistan's academia. Professors across the country are
clamoring to lift even minimal requirements that could assure quality

This is happening in three critical ways. First, given the large
prospective salary raises, professors are bent upon removing all barriers
for their promotions by pressuring their university's administration as
well as the HEC. Second, they want to be able to take on more PhD
students, whether these students have the requisite academic capacity or
not. Having more students translates into proportionately more money in
each professor's pocket. Third, a majority wants the elimination of all
international testing – such as the Graduate Record Examination
administered from Princeton. These had been used as a metric for gauging
student performance within the Pakistani system.

Pakistan's failed experiment provides a counter example to the
conventional wisdom that money is the most important element.Instead, an
enormous cash infusion, used badly, has served to amplify problems rather
than improve teaching and research quality. There is much that other
developing countries can learn from our experience – and it is opposite to
what the authors want us to conclude.

Author affiliation: Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy
physics at Quaid-e-Azam University's department of physics, of which he is
also the chairman.