Unconvincing Mega Projects
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
12 February, 2007
on-going efforts at reforming higher education are turning into a disaster.
Billions are being spent on mindless mega projects. The 15-fold increase
in the funding of Pakistani universities over the last six years may
have delivered a marginal improvement, but it is superficial and likely
to be temporary.
These facts are the subject
of a researched article, "In Pakistan, the Problems That Money
Can Bring", published in the January 2007 issue of the well-respected
New York based Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle notes that
in Pakistan the failure of the HEC (Higher Education
Commission) to create and adequately implement rules has caused an explosion
of substandard universities, fake and substandard degrees, meaningless
research publications and a massive wave of unpunished plagiarised academic
More grand folly is in the
works. Among the government's most expensive projects are the nine new
engineering universities to be spread across the country. Officially
associated with France, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Germany, Japan, as well
as other countries, these universities are supposed to meet the acute
shortage in Pakistan of international quality engineering education.
Contrary to the general impression that these are foreign funded, in
fact 100 per cent of the development, recurrent and salary costs will
be paid for by Pakistan. This would be okay if the basic ingredients
for success were there. They are not.
First, there are far too
few qualified Pakistanis who can teach modern engineering subjects at
an international professional level. There may be no more than two to
three dozen suitable engineering professors in all of Pakistan's engineering
universities. This is a tiny fraction needed by the Rs 26 billion French
University (the proposed name is UESTP-France@Karachi) which will eventually
require 600 qualified Pakistani Ph.D teachers. The Rs 37 billion Pak-Swedish
University, to be located in Sialkot, will need even more. Add more
universities (Italy, Austria, Japan...), and you begin to glimpse the
scale of the problem!
Looking for so many Pakistani
engineering professors living abroad will not help. A national and international
search by the upcoming LUMS School of Science and Engineering has -
after two years of intensive effort - netted less than a dozen suitable
future faculty members, with perhaps
another dozen or two in the pipeline. This is despite LUMS's good reputation
and the very high salaries it has offered. Nothing can change the simple
fact that Pakistanis in science and engineering subjects, whether at
home or abroad, are far too few in numbers.
So, does the answer lie in
sending thousands of Pakistanis to the West for a Ph.D in engineering
or science and then waiting a few years? This route, while superficially
attractive, also has serious difficulties. Foreign training is expensive.
Many will not return, some because they did not succeed and others because
they succeeded too well.One also fears that many of the ones who do
return after completing their Ph.Ds would not have really mastered their
Approximately, a thousand
Pakistanis sent recently to European universities have been selected
on the basis of a rather trivial locally made numeracy and literacy
test. International level tests were not required of students sent to
Europe. (But, in a public declaration of its state of confusion and
muddle-headedness, the HEC has placed advertisements in national newspapers
formally requiring the authentic, but more difficult, international
GRE subject test for registration into the Ph.D programmes of Pakistani
Visiting teams of European
professors interviewed Pakistani students but, according to the students
I have talked to, these were generally rather perfunctory. For whatever
reasons, these teams were apparently softer than normal when selecting
Pakistanis. This unfortunately means that Pakistanis returning from
European universities will not be as good as others who have studied
at the same universities.
So, what about hiring a European
teaching faculty? Plans say that the heads of the new engineering universities
will be professors from the EU countries, and Europeans will constitute
five to 10 per cent of the total faculty strength. Let us set aside
for the moment that Pakistan will pay the visiting European professors
EU level salaries (with a 40 per cent mark-up to cover other expenses).
The question still remains whether these professors will be accomplished
teachers or researchers, or whether they are second-raters in their
Past experience of bringing
faculty from abroad has not been good. There is scarcely a white European
or American to be found in any Pakistani university. Huge salaries paid
under the HEC's four-year old foreign faculty programme has brought
to Pakistan a handful of good dedicated
professionals on contract appointments. They are guiding students, teaching
and doing research. But the overwhelming majority of the foreign faculty
comprises academic mercenaries from Russia, Ukraine, the Central Asian
republics, as well as expatriate Pakistanis. They have little interest
beyond the pecuniary.
The reliance on European
faculty for Pak-European universities is obviously critical. But, according
to French sources, as of early February 2007, no French vice-chancellor
or faculty member has yet been appointed. (Pak-French will be followed
by Pak-Sweden in 2008 and then other
universities). Nevertheless, teaching officially starts in 2007. This
bespeaks a planning disaster of grand proportions.
Worse may lie ahead. Suicide
attacks within Pakistan are now averaging two a week or more. Will this
discourage long-term European faculty in residence? How many professionally
active foreign scientists and engineers will opt for a life under barricades
and armed guards in places like Sialkot, Multan or Khairpur?
These are daunting conditions
for developing higher education in Pakistan - for any policymaker. The
problems are many, not just that of adequate faculty for the nine engineering
universities. For example, the tens of thousands of academically well-equipped,
entry-level students, who would
constitute the input into the Pak-European universities, will not be
available for many years. This would be true even if things start going
perfectly well as of today.
Whim dominates planning.
The HEC's urge to constantly trumpet victory is moving higher education
away from the path of the patient and careful academic development that
it needs. Various products of an unconstrained imagination, such as
the nine Pak-European universities, have been approved without a proper
feasibility study. Senior government officers, whose duty it is to guard
public finances, have surrendered under fear and political pressure.
In any country that abides
by the basic principles of governance, this would surely be sufficient
reason for a public inquiry. The planning commission and the finance
ministry are said to have already released hundreds of millions of rupees
for the Pak-European university project on the basis of a skimpy two-page
"concept paper". This bypasses the usual "PC-1 form"
procedure" a protective mechanism, which even if inadequate, was
devised to prevent waste through haste.
Pakistan needs sober and
reasoned education planning, not fantasy. Yes, we do need foreign assistance
to build up a working higher education system. But a realistic and modest
course of action with real chances of success would have to be designed
differently. We should initially aim for, at the very most, two properly
planned new engineering universities under the collective authority
of the European Union. We also need external help for adding engineering
departments to existing universities, and to massively upgrade existing
ones. It is still not too late to ask for this.
The writer teaches physics
at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Comments may be sent to: email@example.com
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