Friday, September 4, 2009
Hoodbhoy's Letter to Nature on Pakistan's Higher Education Reform
Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy is a vocal critic of Pakistan's Higher Education Reform initiated by Dr. Ata ur Rahman, adviser to President Musharraf, in 2002. This reform resulted in a fivefold increase in public funding for universities, with a special emphasis on science, technology and engineering. The reform supported initiatives such as a free national digital library and high-speed Internet access for universities as well as new scholarships enabling more than 2,000 students to study abroad for PhDs — with incentives to return to Pakistan afterward. 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.
Reacting to the recent publication of a report on reform by Dr. Athar Osama, Prof. Adil Najam, Dr. Shams Kassim-Lakha and Dr. Christopher King published in Nature Magazine, Dr. Hoodbhoy has written the following letter to the editors of the magazine:
"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 non-existent.
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 education.
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.
Riaz Haq's Note: For the first time in the nation's history, President Musharraf's education adviser Dr. Ata ur Rahman succeeded in getting tremendous focus and major funding increases for higher education in Pakistan. According to Sciencewatch, which tracks trends and performance in basic research, citations of Pakistani publications are rising sharply in multiple fields, including computer science, engineering, mathematics, material science and plant and animal sciences. Over two dozen Pakistani scientists are actively working on the Large Hadron Collider; the grandest experiment in the history of Physics. Pakistan now ranks among the top outsourcing destinations, based on its growing talent pool of college graduates. As evident from the overall results, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of universities and highly-educated faculty and university graduates in Pakistan. There have also been some instances of abuse of incentives, opportunities and resources provided to the academics in good faith. The quality of some of the institutions of higher learning can also be enhanced significantly, with some revisions in the incentive systems.
Admission meritocracy, faculty competence and inspirational leadership in education are important, but there is no real substitute for higher spending on higher education to achieve better results. In fact, it should be seen as an investment in the future of the people rather than just another expense.
Of the top ten universities in the world published by Times of London, six are in the United States. The US continues to lead the world in scientific and technological research and development. Looking at the industries of the future such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, green technologies, the US continues to enjoy a huge lead over Europe and Asia. The reason for US supremacy in higher education is partly explained by how much it spends on it. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform, "The Future of European Universities" points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan.
Poor Quality of Education in India and Pakistan
Global Shortage of Quality Labor
Nature Magazine Editorial on Pakistan's Higher Education Reform
McKinsey Global Institute Report
Pakistan Ranks Among Top Outsourcing Destinations
Pakistan Software Houses Association
World's Top Universities Rankings
Improving Higher Education in Pakistan
Globalization of Engineering Services 2006
Center for European Reform
Reforming Higher Education in Pakistan
Hoodbhoy on India