ANALYSIS: The state of higher education —Anwar Syed - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beyond the setting up of minimum standards, the HEC has not been able to do much by way of raising standards in higher education. I cannot say how our universities are doing in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the hard sciences, but I know that they are not doing well in the social sciences 

Much has been said recently on the present government’s reported intention to dissolve the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Its former chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, has described the government’s plan as a conspiracy to destroy higher education and thus to ruin the country. During the last ten years or so the HEC has set up minimum standards, which the various degree-granting institutions must meet. It is claimed that as a result Pakistani degrees are now being accepted on their face value by universities abroad. The HEC has invested a great deal of money by way of grants to universities and their teachers to produce a large number of PhDs and expand teaching and publication programmes. Scores of professional journals in various academic disciplines have surfaced. Thousands of deserving young people have been given scholarships to pursue higher studies at foreign universities.
A couple of negative points should also be noted. The Commission has placed excessive emphasis upon quantification and it has monetised higher education. It invites us to be proud of the fact that its inducements have increased the number of universities, doctoral degree holders, and teaching departments that sponsor and conduct them, manifold. The number of books and articles being written and the journals publishing them have, likewise, multiplied. They are being wholly or partially funded by the Commission. It has disbursed enormous amounts of money to universities and their academic units and it would be no exaggeration to say that they do not always know what to do with it. The Commission has not taken care to ensure that the universities, new and old, and their products attain standards of accomplishment that merit respect. One is entitled to ask if Pakistan would not be better situated with 20 first class universities than with 70, most of which are mediocre.
The HEC is said to have been coordinating higher education. Scores of new colleges and universities, many of them privately owned and managed, have appeared all over the country during the last 10 years or so. In order to keep them from sinking into chaos, it was necessary to set minimum requirements for various degrees that all of them must meet. But that is not the same as equalisation of their status. That is neither desirable nor even possible. A graduate of the Harvard University School of Business will command a better salary in the job market than someone who went to, let us say, the Texas Tech University. The same may be said of the reception that the graduates of IBA, LUMS, and LSE will have in the job market as compared to graduates of other business schools that have mushroomed in the country.
Beyond the setting up of minimum standards, the HEC has not been able to do much by way of raising standards in higher education. I cannot say how our universities are doing in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the hard sciences, but I know that they are not doing well in the social sciences. Few, if any, Pakistanis are internationally known for noteworthy accomplishments in economics, sociology, psychology, or political science. A general shortcoming in all areas of education may be noted. The quest for knowledge, dedication to duty, and commitment to professional ethics are all frail in our schools and colleges. Students want to take easy paths to passing examinations. Many teachers do not wish t spend the time and energy needed to read the more recent publications on their subject in order to prepare their class presentations. It would not be surprising if it transpired that quite a few of them were content with dictating to their students lecture notes that they had inherited from their own teachers.
A reason commonly given for the poor quality of higher education in this country is that reading materials of the requisite depth and diversity are not available in the student’s own language. This problem is not likely to be overcome in the foreseeable future. The remedy lies in advancing their command of the English language. Teaching and learning of English in public schools is in a sad state in spite of the fact that it is the working language of the higher judiciary, bureaucracy, and most other higher ranking establishments. A policy of making Urdu or any of the regional languages the repository of modern knowledge will not work. Pakistani social scientists are not creating a significant body of new knowledge or publishing new interpretations of the existing knowledge. The literature in various disciplines being published in western societies every day is so enormous that even the thought of translating it into Urdu would be absurd. Note also that English has already become an international language. Young people in Europe, Latin America and Asia are learning it as their second language.
Language alone is not the impediment to excellence in education. The hard sciences which use lines, curves, and numerals more than words as their vehicle of expression may be slightly better situated than the social sciences. But barring a rare exception (such as the late Professor Abdus Salam), internationally acknowledged breakthroughs accomplished in Pakistani universities are not known to have happened. The most likely answer to the quest for excellence would appear to be perseverance and diligence. There are occupations in which the people concerned work hard, such as peasants, during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Manual workers (carpenters, blacksmiths, electricians, plumbers, barbers) also work hard throughout the year. But hard work is not a middle class value, especially among salaried employees in public establishments. Reformers urge their audiences to pray and fast but it is amazing that they do not preach working hard at jobs for which they get paid. They do not applaud and commend rizq-e-halal (lawful earnings). The disinclination to work hard afflicts all public services and impairs their performance. Higher education will benefit from the revival of hard work and dedication to duty as operational values in our society.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached at

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