Tuesday, October 14, 2008
HEC University Rankings in Pakistan
Higher Education Commission in Pakistan released its first and only ranking of universities in Pakistan in October 2006. Prior to this HEC effort, there had been no formal attempts by any public or private group to establish a set of criteria and judge Pakistani institutions of higher learning. While this is a laudable first step in the right direction, it is clearly not the be all and end all of the universities' ranking process in Pakistan. It can be significantly improved. As expected, there is a genuine controversy swirling in Pakistan on the HEC ranking methodology and the results. This ongoing controversy may be the reason why the HEC skipped the annual rankings in 2007. The main criticism of the HEC assessment criteria is the emphasis of quantity over quality that unduly favors and rewards institutions with large graduate programs. Another key criticism is the lack of peer and employer assessments of the universities and their alumni.
NEDUET, being predominantly an undergraduate institution, is among the universities that have shown up near the bottom with a meager score of 18.65 out of 100. Since such rankings have only been done once, it is hard to say if the standards of any of the institutions on the list, including NED Engineering University, have risen or declined. You need at least two years of data to draw such conclusions based on the criteria used by the HEC.
NED Alumni Convention 2008:
A panel discussion about "Declining Academic Standards at NEDUET", planned for the upcoming NED Alumni Convention 2008 in the US state of Connecticut, apparently accepts NED University's ranking and assessment of HEC on its face value. As an NEDian myself, I am not advocating denial or defensiveness in response to the low rank of NED by HEC. Instead, I firmly believe that there is a need for further exploration of this subject before reaching any definitive conclusions about "declining standards" or making any recommendations.
Why Rank Universities?
Some readers might ask why should the universities be ranked? I am not certain as to the HEC rationale for it, but I can see several reasons why it is a useful exercise. First, it helps the students and their parents select the institution they should attend based on a set of criteria. Second, if the criteria are clearly laid out and objectively measured, it helps the universities identify areas of improvement to become better at educating students and conducting research. Third, it can be used by the industry and the employers to target specific students, programs and projects for hiring and research.
One-size-fits-all ranking criteria that lump together graduate and undergraduate programs in a variety of unrelated disciplines are not particularly helpful to any of the potential users including students, parents, employers, researchers etc.
As an example, the ranking criteria used by US News and World Report, the most widely used rankings in the United States, separate out undergraduate programs from graduate programs. The USNWR graduate program criteria have heavy emphasis on research and publications while the undergraduate program criteria do not. Other key criteria used by USNWR include peer assessment and employers' and recruiters' feedback on the universities and their alumni.
USNWR Undergraduate Criteria:
1. Peer Assessment 25% weight
2. Student Retention Rate 20%
3. Faculty Resources: 20%
4. Admission Acceptance Selectivity: 15%
5. Financial Resources: 10%
6. Graduation Rate: 5%
7. Alumni Giving: 5%
USNWR Graduate Program Criteria:
1. Peer Assessment (25%)
2. Recruiter Assessment (15%)
3. Mean GRE Score (6.75%)
4. Acceptance Rate (3.25%)
5. Student-Faculty Ratio (7.5%)
6. Faculty with National Academy of Engineering Membership (7.5%)
7. Doctoral Degrees Awarded (6.25%)
8. Research Activity (25%)
HEC's Ranking Criteria for NEDUET Assessment:
Faculty 4.44/27 ( NED at 2.28/9 on ratio of Ph.D.s on faculty, 0.04/4 on research grants)
Research 2.79/26 ( NED got 0.17/4 on research published, 0.10/3 on research papers/faculty)
Students 5.52/17 ( NED received 0/4.0 on number of Ph.D.s produced, 0.44/5.0 on Student admission selectivity, 1.12/3 on M.Phil/16+ yrs ed)
Facilities 4.4/15 ( NED got 0.88/4 on number of books, 0.30/2 on equipment costing over $2m)
Finances 1.5/15 ( NED scored 0/4 on non-recurring expenditure/student, 0.05/2 amount of money generated through own resources)
Total Score: 18.65/100 NED Rank: 10/13 engineering universities
Pakistani Universities' Standing in the World:
Some India watchers such as Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American who often acts as a cheerleader for India in the US, have expressed doubts about the quality of education at the Indian Institutes of Technology. In his book "The Post-American World", Zakaria argues that "many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork." Zakaria says the key strength of the IIT graduates is the fact that they must pass "one of the world's most ruthlessly competitive entrance exams. Three hundred thousand people take it, five thousand are admitted--an acceptance rate of 1.7% (compared with 9 to 10 percent for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton)."
As a student of Karachi's NED University of Engineering and Technology in 1970s, I had similar assessment of my alma mater (and other UETs) in Pakistan as Zakaria's characterization of the IITs in India. NED Engineering College in 1970s was "decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork". However, given the fairly strict merit-based admission process, I found myself mostly surrounded by some of the best, most competitive students who had graduated with flying colors from Karachi's intermediate colleges and ranked very high on the Board of Education examination to make it into NED College. It was indeed the creme de la creme of Karachi's youth who have later proved themselves by many accomplishment s in various industries, including some of the leading-edge high-tech companies in America. Even in the 1970s, there were a small number of students admitted on non-merit-based special quotas. NED University today, however, appears to have significantly expanded such special, non-merit-based, quotas for entrance into the institution, an action that has probably affected its elite status, its rankings and the perceived quality of its graduates, while other, newer institutions of higher learning have surpassed it. Some of the special categories now include sons and daughters of employees, children of faculty and professional engineers and architects, special nominees from various ministries and an expanded quota for candidates from rural areas and the military.
Looking at the top 500 universities in the world, one can see a few universities from China, Japan, Singapore and India and a few more from Muslim nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The notable institutions from South Asia include several campuses of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Pakistan's National University of Science and Technology (NUST), University of Lahore, Karachi University and Lahore's University of Engineering and Technology. The top Pakistani school on this list is National University of Science and Technology (NUST) at #376, followed by University of Lahore, University of Karachi, and UET Lahore. Many new universities are now being built in several Muslim nations in Asia and the Middle East, and they are attracting top talent from around the world. For example, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), scheduled to open on Sept. 23, is the country's attempt to create a world-class research university from scratch. It's hiring top scholars from all over the world. "Our goal is to kick-start an innovation-based economy," says Ahmad O. Al-Khowaiter, the university's vice-president for economic development. "We need a couple of success stories, and we think this will lead to one (collaboration with IBM Research)."
With the score of 18.65/100, NED University, the oldest institution of higher learning with many successful alumni and an illustrious history, is ranked at number 10 out of 13 engineering universities in Pakistan. NED University has been assessed by HEC on criteria that favor universities with strong graduate programs that award a large number of Ph.D. and M.S. degrees. It ignores recruiter (employer) assessment that speak to the quality of NED University alumni. It also discounts the accomplishments of NEDians diaspora that attest to the quality of education they received at NEDUET. Clearly, the NEDUET's low ranking is based on its lack of a strong graduate program. Under the current HEC criteria, more Ph.D. faculty and students enrolled means higher ranking. More research papers means bigger score. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that HEC is using the number of PhDs at various institutions as a proxy for the state of higher education in Pakistan.
It may be useful to encourage more and bigger graduate programs enrolling and producing more PhDs. But there is a danger in playing the numbers game. The quantity must not be allowed to degrade quality. Encouraging production of more Ph.D.s and research papers by HEC and its financial incentives have come under heavy criticism by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and many others (See related links below). It has led to lowered standards for Ph.D.s and instances of plagiarized papers at Punjab University ranked number 2 among general universities, just below the top-ranked Quaid-e-Azam University with a large number of Ph.D. faculty members and students. According to Professor Hoodbhoy, there are as many as 18 PhD students registered with one supervisor in QAU's Physics department! In the QAU biology department, that number rises to 37 for one supervisor. HEC incentives have helped dilute PhD qualifying exams to the point where it is difficult for any student not to pass. HEC is reportedly paying as much as Rs. 5000 per month per Ph.D. student to supervisors as incentive to produce more Ph.D.s in Pakistan. HEC grants to universities are also based on the number of Ph.D. students enrolled.
The Way Forward:
HEC has made a good start by attempting to formalize a process by which academic institutions can be judged and ranked. But the HEC must not stop at rev 0. It must continue fine-tuning the ranking criteria and the process to provide better and more useful feedback to the institutions. HEC must initiate and manage the effort to make Pakistan's institutions of higher learning more competitive internationally, and help the students become better prepared to make greater contribution to society by responding to major national challenges such as the energy and food crises, poor governance, bad urban planning, climate change, etc. Just producing more PhDs will not be particularly helpful to a nation beset by multiple crises. I think it's important for the HEC to establish separate criteria for undergraduate and graduate engineering programs to be fair to all colleges and universities including NED University of Engineering and Technology. There should be two separate rankings published for undergraduate and graduate engineering programs. These should be completely separate from non-engineering universities. At the same time NEDUET should work to beef up its graduate program with more resources in terms of faculty, facilities, student enrollment and research and publications aimed at overcoming the major national challenges of the day. NEDUET leadership needs the vision to pick one or two major national challenges and respond to them by developing the expertise and excellence required to succeed. The NED alumni can, and should, help in this endeavor with a lobbying effort to improve NEDUET leadership and governance, an alumni-managed endowment fund and alumni-sponsored industry alliances around the world.
Higher Education in Pakistan
World's Top 600 Universities' Ranking
NED Alumni Convention 2007
Pakistani Universities: Problems and Solutions
Reforming Pakistani Universities
Plagiarism at Punjab University
More Speed Than Traction
Global University Rankings Video
HEC Postpones Ranking Universities