Published on September 5th, 2009 | by Babar Bhatti0
Nature Reviews Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment
This is taken from a post by Adil Najam of Pakistaniat.com. Nature is one of the most prestigious publications in the world. The topic of education is core to our future. Therefore it is worth thinking about and discussing. I hope that you will take the time to go through it. Prof. Najam writes:
The latest issue of Nature (Volume 461 Number 7260, September 3, 2009) carries an article as well as an editorial on Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform experiment and on the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Since I am myself one of the co-authors I should not add too much more commentary to what we have already written in our Nature article. But some minimal contextual information may be worthwhile.
The topic of higher education reform, of course, has been a subject of intense debate in Pakistan and has been closely followed internationally because of the sweeping scale of the reform experiment in Pakistan. For this article the authors – Dr. Athar Osama (a scholar of science policy in developing countries and a Visiting Fellow at the Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, and someone who has written occasionally for ATP), Prof. Adil Najam (myself, the Director of the Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future), Dr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha (former President of the Aga Khan University and former Minister of Education, Science and Technology), Prof. Syed Zulfiqar Gilani (former Vice Chancellor, University of Peshawar) and Dr. Christopher King (editor of ScienceWatch) – reviewed the activities and impacts of the reform experiment to date.
The editorial says:
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.
First, conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Despite early doubts that Musharraf’s autocratic regime could allocate the new funds effectively, the experts cite initiatives such as a free national digital library and high-speed Internet access for universities as examples of success, as well as new scholarships enabling more than 2,000 students to study abroad for PhDs — with incentives to return to Pakistan afterwards. And they acknowledge that the years of reform have coincided with increases in the number of Pakistani authors publishing in research journals, especially in mathematics and engineering, as well as boosting the impact of their research outside Pakistan.
Second, human capital matters. One concern raised by the report published in this issue is that the 3,500 candidates for Pakistan’s new domestic PhD programmes have had lower qualifications than the candidates going abroad. But that is a situation that should correct itself over time as Pakistan’s schools improve. For the time being, the more important point is that Pakistan has opened up the chance of a research degree to many more people than in the past — including those who do not have wealthy families, or access to influential people, or good skills in European languages. Harnessing those reserves of talent is an integral part of any nation’s development.
Finally, accountability is essential. This was not a priority for the architects of Pakistan’s educational reform, partly because they were working for an autocratic regime, and partly because they were in too much of a hurry. The government seemed to be living on borrowed time, Musharraf’s science adviser, Atta-ur-Rahman, has recalled. On the one hand, politicians, judges and lawyers were pressing for a return to democracy; on the other, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban was increasing. Suicide bombers twice tried to assassinate Musharraf — once by blowing up his motorcade as he returned from making a speech to scientists. If the reformers didn’t get their programme in place quickly, they feared they might not get it in place at all.
The result, however, is that the body created to implement the reforms, the Higher Education Commission, has operated with minimal oversight by academics, parliamentarians or anyone else. There has been some waste, although no one has yet accused the commission of egregious abuses of power. But it has exhibited blind spots that an outside influence might have corrected — notably a total lack of investment in the social sciences and policy research, disciplines that encourage the asking of questions that autocratic regimes frequently dislike answering.
This must change. Pakistan is no longer a dictatorship. The elected government, under President Asif Ali Zardari, has expressed cautious support for continuing Musharraf’s education reforms. It therefore has an opportunity to build on their successes and correct their shortcomings — starting with an independent review of the commission’s performance.
From Adil’s post, I reproduce some excerpts from the paper article on how the reform has fared and what may be needed ( link to article is here, or in hard copy Nature (Volume 461 Number 7260, pp 38-39, September 3, 2009):
Human resources took the lion’s share of investment, and often received the strongest criticisms… For example, a foreign PhD fellowship programme has sponsored more than 2,000 scholars to study abroad. To date, the host countries seem to be happy with the quality of these students, although the programme’s impact will depend on Pakistan’s ability to attract back and reabsorb the scholars. By contrast, the domestic PhD fellowship programme has had a bumpier start. Here the goal was to create 5,000 new PhDs at local universities over 5 years – from a baseline of a few hundred PhDs in previous years. In this instance, the HEC’s critics argue that undue emphasis has been placed on quantity rather than quality. Two factors are at the root of the criticism – strong financial incentives for faculty members for each student that they advise, and low entry criteria for students…
Arguably, in this and in a few other cases, the HEC adopted a much more aggressive approach to reform than it – or Pakistan’s university system – could manage. In some instances, the HEC has been slow to realize the unintended consequences of its programmes. Excessive centralization of the reform effort – which the HEC justified as necessary to keep up momentum – also undermined university leadership and academic freedom…
The HEC seems to have changed the culture of Pakistani academia considerably over the past 5 years. The HEC claims to have caused a 400% increase in the number of papers published in international journals by Pakistani universities. It also takes credit for the appearance of three Pakistani universities among a popular top-600 chart of world universities, the ranking of Pakistan as a ‘rising star’ in five fields of science and engineering and external endorsements by evaluation teams from the British Council, the World Bank and USAID…
The strongest criticism of the reforms is that by vesting most powers within one body, the HEC became the initiator, implementer and evaluator, making accountability problematic or impossible. This created opposition from those who might have agreed with the reforms but were opposed to the implementation. Greater transparency and accountability would have diverted some of this criticism. More consultation and external oversight would have reduced the momentum for reform, but, in some cases, that may have been a good thing. In our view, reform should be evenly paced – even slowed down – to avoid any real or perceived compromise on quality…
The HEC has, over the past few years, made considerable progress. Its success, however, must not be measured by the number of grants made or PhDs awarded. Rather it should be judged on whether it is creating a culture of research – one driven not by financial incentives, but by a genuine desire to create new knowledge and to enable the broader society to reap the benefits. While that remains to be seen, Pakistan’s experience has useful lessons for other countries.