Higher Ed in Pakistan, More Money – No Relief

There is a report in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) about an increase in spending on higher education in Pakistan. There are plans to start nine engineering universities, five law schools and several medical schools. An effort to attract Pakistani academics located abroad and foreign faculty members by providing research grants and salaries of up to $4,000 per month (about 30% higher than the maximum pay for local faculty) has drawn 350 expatriates and about 300 foreign scholars. Over the last four years the percentage of college-age students (enrolled in colleges and universities has gone up from 2.9% to 3.8%.

All of this should be good news. However according to critics although the higher education budget of the Government of Pakistan has increase sevenfold over the last four years to $449 million (still only 0.5% of GDP), that expenditure is not producing enough bang for all those bucks.

There is a litany of complaints but they can be boiled down to saying that the money is not being spent in a well-thought out fashion. One example is the expenditure that has gone towards establishing PhD programs, awarding scholarships for doctoral study abroad, and hiring foreign professors. Despite this focus on graduate study, the quality of the programs is poor. Local programs are understaffed and the staff is not always well-qualified.

The foreign faculty that has been hired often comes from Eastern Europe or former Soviet States and the professors cannot speak English well (and probably speak no Urdu) and are not strong researchers. Many of the new hires are returning Pakistanis but they do not have sufficient distinction in their academic areas. While students are encouraged to join PhD programs, admission standards are weak and the increase in the number of doctoral students has swamped the number of faculty members available to supervise them.

In a bid to increase productivity faculty members have been offered cash incentives to publish papers (Rs. 5,000-10,000 per paper – about $112-224) and take on doctoral students (Rs. 5,000 per student). While this has led to an increase in the number of papers published, it has also lead to fraud and plagiarism.

Another problem is that the development money is being spent on the 57 public universities in the country with the 700 or so undergraduate colleges receiving little support.

These and other points constitute valid criticisms. The Chronicle article quotes several Pakistani academics and education industry consultants voicing these concerns but it does not report any constructive suggestions on how to avoid or fix these types of problems. Perhaps that is simply an artifact of poor reporting or perhaps the critics really do not have anything constructive to offer. I know from my own experience that bringing organizational change and staffing any major effort is a very difficult task. Multiply this difficulty several-fold by attempting change on the scale of a country within a relatively short period of a few years and it is not surprising that all sorts of problems are being encountered.

Maybe the chairman of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission Dr. Atta-ur Rahman (who heads the development program) could have hired more capable assistants or used a more collaborative process to drive change. However a more fundamental question is why there is so much expenditure on graduate education and practically none on undergraduate education. Is it really worthwhile to produce PhDs when a larger need within industry or business is for graduates with Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees? Pakistani industry hardly has the research infrastructure to utilize PhDs and it is debatable whether university research labs will be able to produce spin-offs that would be effectively assimilated by local companies.

It would be more cost-effective to send students abroad to obtain their doctorates and focus within the country on undergraduate education. Well-educated undergraduates working in their thousands in industry, business, and government would probably have a more immediate impact on raising the economic productivity of the country than producing several hundred PhDs at this time. The development of a strong economic foundation will ultimately create a demand for PhD-level engineers, scientists, and even humanists.

If PhDs are really needed, an alternate approach would be (horrors!) to encourage immigration to Pakistan. Provide some economic incentives for PhD-holders to move to Pakistan and do whatever it is they are supposed to do. Of course, if they want to setup a company or business and need qualified local worker bees, that talent had better be available …

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