PAKISTAN: Changing landscape of higher educatin

Ever since Pakistan came into being 61 years ago, the country has been going through turbulent times. But the past six years have seen a remarkable change in the landscape of higher education, a silent revolution as a World Bank report refers to it, largely thanks to the six-year old Higher Education Commission and its extraordinarily capable chairman Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, an internationally renowned organic chemist. Rahman's goal is to democratise quality education without diluting excellence.

Speaking at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World in Trieste, Italy, recently, Rahman noted that:

* Research funding had increased by 2,400% in the past five years, bringing the total amount of public funding for research to more than US$1 billion.

* There had been a 20-fold increase in the budget for higher education over the past seven years.

* Performance determines pay: Pakistan's new tenure track system allows salaries up to $5,000 a month for really productive professors with evaluation by a committee of international experts working in the best universities.

* Maximum tax payable by academics is 5%, and a 75% tax waiver exists for university professors that allows them to keep much of their salaries.

* More than 500 scientists and professors have come from abroad to work in Pakistan; although many are Pakistanis, several are foreigners attracted by good salaries and other reasons.

* Twenty centralised laboratories provide analytical testing services to all researchers.

* The Higher Education Commission's $1 billion foreign scholarship programme helps about 2,000 students each year attend foreign universities for higher studies.

* Between 2006 and 2010, more than 600 Pakistani students will have enrolled in masters and doctoral programmes in American universities as Fulbright scholars while 500 will go to Australia.

* PhD enrolment in Pakistani universities increased to 8,000. In the past five years as 56 new universities were set up, enrolments grew by 130%. PhD output doubled from 300 a year to 600, and is expected to double in the next four years.

* Full advantage is taken of developments in information technology to stimulate learning and creativity. The Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN), a broadband fibre-optic network of 310 Mbps total bandwidth, currently links 97 universities and provides a platform for nation-wide data exchange and digital library service. PERN is now connected to the US as well to facilitate research collaboration.

* Students and faculty have access to more than 23,000 journals, and they downloaded more than 1.2 million articles in 2006. More than 40,000 textbooks and monographs published by 220 publishers are available as e-books.

* A mirror site facilitates access to the open courseware of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

* HEC has forged partnerships with reputed universities in Asia and Europe to set up campuses in Pakistan. Partners will come from Austria, China, France, Germany and Italy in the first phase. Japan, South Korea and Sweden will join later.

The Web of Science reveals that Rahman's efforts have paid rich dividends. There has been a rapid rise in the number of papers published by Pakistani researchers in journals indexed in the Web of Science in the last few years. In 1999, Pakistan published more than 600 papers in a year for the first time. The number rose to 785 in 2002, 1,279 in 2005 and 2,457 in 2007.

Most of the papers are published in Pakistani journals and although a small number appear in overseas journals the number is increasing. Chemistry and plant science appear to be the dominant areas of research.

Social sciences seem to be lagging far behind. But, says Dr Sohail Naqvi, Executive Director of the HEC, efforts are afoot to secure 1,500 fellowships for social science students and researchers to go to foreign universities for higher studies.

The pace of progress is likely to fall this year. There is a ban on recruitment of staff although the rise in student admissions continues. A budget crunch means that of the total education budget of $3.4 billion, only $376 million, or 13%, is allocated to higher education compared with an international norm of 25%.

Addressing Pakistan's vice chancellors, Rahman urged them to raise funds from sources other than the government, including sources outside Pakistan.