PAKISTAN: Universities - the party's now over

On 11 September 2001 the world suddenly woke up to the fact that something was dreadfully wrong with Pakistan. Foreign donor agencies and governments, fearing that an uneducated and unskilled Pakistan would become an epicentre of terrorism, tripped over each other to offer aid for education. Spend more money, get better universities and less terrorism. Obvious, wasn't it?

A tidal wave of cash soon hit Pakistan's public universities. During the years of General Pervez Musharraf, from 1999 to 2008, the budget for university education rose by an astonishing factor of 12, which must surely be a world record of sorts.

Universities doubled in number, then tripled. The number of PhD students registered at various universities exploded. Huge financial incentives for faculty members were announced for publishing research papers and for supervising PhD students. Salaries skyrocketed. Tenured university professors saw their salaries doubled, tripled, and sometimes even quadrupled - today a full professor can make 30-35 times more than a village schoolteacher.

Expensive scientific equipment was ordered, and breathtaking new schemes were announced almost every other day. But even before they could be implemented, success would be declared by the new czar of higher education, Professor Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, who had just been appointed to the position of chairman of the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, by Musharraf.

Full-page paid advertisements appeared in newspapers, roadside banners carried pictures of Musharraf and Rahman, and a stream of propagandists was sent overseas at government expense to celebrate the revolution.

But the chickens are now coming home to roost. A few have already arrived.

Money raining down from the skies created, among other things, a new dynamic as well. Greed is now destroying the moral fibre of Pakistan's academia. Professors across the country are clamouring to lift even minimal requirements that could assure quality education.

This is happening in two critical ways. First, to benefit from many-fold increases in salaries for tenure-track positions professors are speedily removing all barriers for their promotions.

Second, they want to be able to take on more PhD students, whether these students have the requisite academic capacity or not. Having more students translates into proportionately more money in each professor's pocket.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan's flagship public institution. Barely three kilomateres from the presidency and the prime minister's secretariat, it was once an island of excellence in a shallow sea of mediocrity. Most other universities started lower, and their decay has gone further and faster than at QAU. Some are recognisable as universities in name only.

QAU's departments of physics and economics were especially well known 30-40 years ago when I joined the university. The faculty was small and not many PhD degrees were awarded in those days. Money was scarce but standards were fairly good and approximated those at a reasonable US university.

But as time passed, less care was taken in appointing new faculty members. Politics began to dominate over merit and quality slipped. That slow slippage is now turning into rapid collapse.

Earlier this year, at a formal meeting, my university's professors voted to make life still easier for themselves. The Academic Council, the key decision-making body of the university, decided that henceforth no applicant for a university teaching position, whether at the associate professor or professor level, could be required to give an open seminar or lecture as a part of the selection process. Open lectures were deemed by the council as illegal, unjust and a ploy for victimising teachers.

This is mind-boggling. Public presentations allow an applicant's subject competence and ability to communicate to be assessed by the academic community. [For the record, I insisted that requiring open lectures from candidates is standard practice in every decent university in the world. This prompted angry demands for my dismissal as chairman of my department!]

A second major decision also dealt a stunning blow to the future of QAU and to Pakistan's other universities as well. The council voted 25-12 that QAU's PhD candidates did not have to conform to international standards. It decided to overturn its earlier acceptance of the HEC's requirement that the international GRE subject tests must be passed by a candidate before the award of a PhD degree.

Some professors gleefully noted the HEC had been mortally weakened by the post-Musharraf government, and argued that good advantage needed to be taken of this happy fact.

PhD candidates, together with their supervisors, also demand unearned degrees. They hold that passing examinations and taking courses is unnecessary and an affront to their dignity. Protest demonstrations have been held across the country.

The demand is for cancellation of the current requirements of passing the international Graduate Record Examinations, the GRE, as well as the requirement of taking and passing graduate level courses. They say that producing research papers entitles them to receive the highest degree in their chosen discipline.

Why the urgency for eliminating international testing? And why does the QAU decision resonate so well in other Pakistani universities? This is easily understood.

Each professor gets paid a few hundred thousand rupees (several thousand dollars) per PhD produced, with a current maximum of 10 students per supervisor at QAU. Lifting the GRE requirement removes a threat to the additional income of their supervisors. To keep up appearances, from now on a token internal test will be used instead. It is hard to imagine that any student will be allowed to fail.

Lest anyone should think that too much is required of students, let me add that 'passing' means achieving 40 percentage or better in the GRE subject test. But even this ludicrously low pass mark drew howls of protest.

PhD students saw their degrees endangered while their supervisors saw their incomes threatened: every single registered Ph.D student was a cash cow worth Rs 5,000 (US$58) a month. The money went into the teacher's pocket.

Banded together by common interests, teachers and students lobbied to get the pass mark reduced still further. Others demanded that if testing was to be done at all, let it be done locally. Proponents of international testing - such as myself - were dubbed as 'foreign agents' and passionate arguments of national ghairat (honour) being at stake were thrown around.

But international tests of subject competence are simply indispensable. First, science is a global enterprise and rules for assessing competence in a particular discipline are universal. Local evaluations and testing mechanisms cannot compete in validity and quality.

Second, in a society where ethical standards in the teachers' community are no higher than among politicians or shopkeepers, the impartial and cheating-free nature of international testing is absolutely vital. The fact that more than 100 Pakistani parliamentarians have faked degrees - the revelation of which has stirred a political storm in the country - adds urgency to international testing.

Today's horrible mess comes from a misguided policy that emphasised numbers over all else. A propaganda blitz by Rahman had convinced overseas institutions and prestigious publications, such as Nature, that Pakistan's higher education had turned the corner.

The World Bank was equally breathless in its praise. A thick report, issued by a team led by the bank's lead education specialist Benoît Millot, lavished praise on the HEC for having effected "quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector".

Printed on glossy paper and embellished with beautiful graphics, it was deficient in only one respect - there was not a single reference to any scientifically performed survey that could support its conclusions.

In effect Nature and the World Bank became accomplices to a grand heist of Pakistan's public money. Sadly, there is no one to take them to task.

The house of straw has finally been blown away. With Pakistan teetering on the brink of financial collapse, construction of university buildings has been frozen leaving them half completed. More than 70 vice-chancellors of the public sector universities and degree-awarding institutions sent a collective SOS to the HEC last month over their vanished development funds.

Universities are going broke trying to pay the huge increase in faculty salaries. On the other hand, fantastically expensive research equipment litters the country, much of it unused. Academic standards have plummeted, one reason being that most newly established universities lack faculty of credible competence. Seven years of furious spending has little to show for it.

The bottom line is: how you spend matters much more than how much you spend. Let this be a lesson to those who think that it only takes money to make universities good.

*Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy is chair and a professor in the department of physics, Quaid-e-Azam University. He received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology.

Thics article contains nothing new. Why is this professor not writing in support of an increase in Pakistan's education budget to 4% of gross domestic product? Why is this not mentioned? The writer is always drawing attention to the problem without giving a solution. Why does he not write about how we can improve our educational standards. What is the solution of this decline in standard? He enjoys all the benefits of the tenure track system and at the same time writing against it.

Rizwan Ahmed

I gather that you do not know Professor Hoodbhoy. Hoodbhoy persistently argues in favour of GRE test and prerequisite presentation. These, and others, are suggestions he has made to keep the academic standard high. What else you want from him?

Raja Rameez