THE PERIOD between 2003 and 2008 saw amazing developments in the higher education sector of Pakistan, dramatically changing the landscape of our universities. In 2003, only 2.6 per cent of youth in Pakistan aged 17 to 23 had access to higher education, among the lowest percentages in the world. The total enrolment was only 270,000. In a short period of eight years this has risen almost fourfold with a million students (about 8 per cent of the same age group) now with access to university education. This has been brought about by the increase in the number of universities and degree-awarding institutes from only 59 in the year 2000 to 137 such institutions at present. This amazing increase in enrolment and spread of higher education was largely due to the support provided by the government during 2000-2008 that led to a 6,000 per cent increase in the development budget of science and technology and a 3,500 percent increase in the development budget of higher education during that period.

The period after 2003 has also seen some remarkable progress in research output from Pakistan. Only about 600 research publications were appearing in international journals annually up to the year 2000. With the support provided by the Musharraf government this started changing rapidly, particularly till 2008. This year Pakistan will publish about 8,000 research papers in international journals, overtaking India in terms of research output per million population, no mean achievement. The PhD output from our universities has also increased significantly. During the 55-year period between 1947 and 2002, only 3,281 PhDs were produced by our universities. During the subsequent 10-year period about 5,000 PhDs have been produced, reflecting the transformation of universities to research-oriented institutions.

However, an increase in numbers alone can be disastrous if they are not accompanied by quality. Several measures were, therefore, introduced in 2004 to enhance quality. One of these was the requirement by the HEC that all PhD theses should be evaluated by at least two international experts in technologically advanced countries before the local viva voce examination could be held. To remove the “cut-and-paste” culture, a software (“iThenticate” or “Turnitin”) was introduced in every university to check the theses and research papers regarding any illegally copied work from other sources prior to submission.

In a report prepared by USAID after an independent year-long analysis of Pakistans higher education sector, it was stated: “From the outset, the HEC set international standards as the benchmark for quality improvement for institutions, programmes and individuals at every level – the faculty, curriculum, student admissions, PhD requirements, promotions, equipment and laboratories, ICT, research, teaching, and service. As one looks back at the focus on quality improvement three years later, it was a wise decision that has paid dividends. Quality improvement and international standards were evident in a wide range of programmes implemented by the HEC.” In order to enhance quality, about 84 quality assurance cells were established in all public-sector universities. They were tasked to closely monitor the quality of teaching and research and take remedial measures where ever weaknesses were detected.

With the introduction of a new tenure track system of contractual appointments of faculty with a much higher salary structure, job opportunities were created for the most talented students in Pakistan so that they could take up careers in teaching and research with salaries of about Rs 400,000 per month, and a reduced tax rate of a maximum of 5 per cent. The first ranking of all universities was carried out in 2007, in order to create a sense of competitiveness. The criteria for appointments and promotions of faculty were toughened to ensure excellence. To strengthen faculty some 13,000 scholarships were given for foreign studies as well as for local research programmes during 2003-2011, as compared to only about 300 scholarships in the 30 years before the establishment of the HEC. The annual development funds under the UGC in 2001-2002 were only Rs0.4 billion but these had risen to about Rs 15 billion (an about 35-fold increase) by 2007-2008. Projects worth about Rs168 billion were approved making a major impact on our universities.

A flagship project of the HEC was the digital library programme. Had one walked into a library of any university prior to the establishment of the HEC, one would have found it difficult to find even a dozen of the latest research journals. By 2008 all that had changed, with every student in every public-sector university having free access to 25,000 international journals and some 65,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers through one of the finest digital libraries in the world.

However, the scenario changed rapidly as had been feared in an editorial by the worlds top international journal Nature (28 August 2008). It had stated: “The Peoples Party has some learning to do. Its previous record on science is among the most misguided of all Pakistans elected governments. In the late 1970s, the partys founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto diverted scarce resources and personnel into building the nuclear bomb. His daughter Benazirs contribution during the 1980s and 1990s was a science ministry without a dedicated minister. A return to the pre-Musharraf era would send Pakistan back to the scientific Stone Age. The new government needs to recognise that regardless of how much it disliked him, the general bequeathed it a foundation in science and technology on which it can build.”

In 2008, when the USAID report was written, even the USAID team had sensed that dark days lay ahead for higher education. It stated in the report: “The current situation in Pakistan is one of transition, uncertainty, and insecurity. In this environment, continued improvement of the higher education system is critical to security, stability, democratisation, and national development.” It went on: “We want to emphasise the importance of high-quality higher education to the economic, social, and political development of Pakistan. No nation has moved into the ranks of developed nations without high quality higher education. Pakistan is not yet at that stage, but has made significant progress in that direction.”

The new government that came into power in 2008 slashed the budget of science and technology to about Rs1.0 billion, one-sixth of what it was in 2002, thereby almost completely obliterating the science and technology programmes. A similar cut on higher education has drastically reduced Pakistans chances of migrating to a knowledge economy, with the universities and research centres gasping for funds. With the closing down of the National Commission of Biotechnology and the National Commission of Nanotechnology, science is being obliterated from Pakistan, as was feared in the editorial in Nature.

The HEC is now in serious trouble. Its autonomy has been shattered by the illegal appointment of a retired army major as its executive director, violating the powers of the Commission to make such appointments. His brilliant predecessor, Dr Sohail Naqvi, has been forced to resign. Only a Supreme Court intervention can save this wonderful institution from being transformed into another corrupt and “obedient” government department.

The enemies of Pakistan, alas, lie within us.

The writer is former Federal Minister of Science and Technology and former Chairman of the Higher Education Commission. He can be reached at: ibne_sina@hotmail.com

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