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HEC's Unconvincing Mega Projects

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

12 February, 2007
The Dawn

The 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 papers.

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 respective disciplines.

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 universities!)

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 own countries.

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:

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