PAKISTAN: Lack of higher education vision - Rahman

At his lab at Karachi University's HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, surrounded by shelves of test tubes, microscopes and various machines, the centre's patron director Atta-ur-Rahman, 68, is a far cry from the nutty professor. He likes the finer things in life, like the orchids on his desk, which he says are grown at the centre.

Rahman was Pakistan's federal minister for science and technology, and federal minister of education, before becoming founding chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002, with the status of a federal minister. He resigned in 2008.

He has 103 books under his belt, some 800 research publications or chapters, and is editor-in-chief of 10 European chemistry journals. He was the first Muslim scientist to win the prestigious Unesco Science Prize, in 1999.

Interviewed by University World News, Rahman spoke his mind on the recent funding debacle that has beset higher education in Pakistan, among other topics.

UWN: How damaging has the recent funding debacle been for universities?

Atta-ur-Rahman: It has been disastrous! The most important programme of faculty development has been completely frozen with no new scholarships being given. At present, out of about 18,000 faculty members in Pakistan's public sector universities, only 4,000 have PhD degrees. Thus, over 70% of our university staff are not qualified to be in the faculty. HEC was trying to develop the faculty with almost 60% of its funds directed to meet this critical need. This is now at a standstill!

In addition, a large number of development projects at universities all over Pakistan are lying incomplete. Contractors are threatening to sue the universities for non-payment of work undertaken. The negative signals being sent about the state of higher education in Pakistan may encourage many of the 4,000 students already completing PhD degrees abroad not to return. This will be a huge loss to the nation, since more than Rs 40 billion (US$465.4 million) is being spent on their training.

UWN: Is the era of increased funding to universities now over?

Atta-ur-Rahman: One hopes the finance ministry will realise that in order to tackle poverty, hunger and ignorance, Pakistan has to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) substantially. This is only possible if we can transition from a low value-added agricultural economy to a knowledge economy.

For this we need to simply emulate the paths adopted by Korea, China, Finland and many others. Even Bangladesh has forged ahead of us! Higher education must get 1.75% of GDP and lower education 5.25% of GDP [out of the goal of 7% for education by 2015 stated by the government in its education policy] if we hope to ever rid ourselves of the beggar's bowl.

The era of increased funding must not be allowed to end; funding needs to grow exponentially.

UWN: With the government facing fiscal crunch, was its refusal to release funds for higher education mistimed?

Atta-ur-Rahman: More than lack of money, it is lack of priority towards higher education that is painful. The government had announced a 50% increase in salaries for all its employees. While the increased salaries were released to all other government ministries, HEC was picked out for non-release. This was not a fair treatment. If there was a problem of funds, it should have affected all government employees. Of course, after the strike by the universities, the matter was cleared up, but why was the strike necessary? The finance ministry should have dealt with HEC in an equitable manner.

UWN: Are lack of funds, political instability and a deteriorating security situation some of the factors that have marred the development of higher education in Pakistan?

Atta-ur-Rahman: More than these factors, I think the biggest obstacle has been the lack of vision of our leaders in successive governments about the role of knowledge in the process of socio-economic development.

Successive governments have given the lowest priority to education, with total expenditure on education now less than 1.4% of GDP. This should be at least 8% of GDP. Moreover, only 7% of this 1.4% presently goes to higher education, so while too little money is going into education, too little of that is going into higher education.

UWN: With the higher education budget increasing 900% during 2002-08, do you think the sector grew too fast given other priorities in Pakistan?

Atta-ur-Rahman: Certainly not, quite the opposite! Only 5.1% of our population between the ages of 17 and 23 is presently receiving university level education. In contrast, in India it is already about 10% of the same age group (of a much larger population) while in Korea it is 88%. We are at least 15 to 20 years behind India.

Even if we wish to reach 10% of the age group, it will need a five-fold increase in funding as we will need to add another 100 universities at a cost of Rs 500 billion (US$5.8175 billion) over the next five years, plus provide operational expenditure. [At present the higher education sector is being given only Rs 44 billion or US$511.94 million.]

UWN: Does it feel as if the progress made by HEC will be reversed after its reining in by the government?

Atta-ur-Rahman: I'm not one to give up. All these challenges just make me work harder. In any case the new HEC chairperson, Javaid Leghari, is a very competent person, and since HEC policies were crafted by experts, the momentum generated continues.

However, the HEC has faced one major setback - the powers of the executive director, who previously enjoyed the position of the federal secretary, have been withdrawn. So while the executive director could, in the past, approve projects up to Rs 100 million (US$1.16 million) that power has been withdrawn.

UWN: The amount of foreign direct funds flowing into the HEC has increased over the years. Have the HEC, and by extension Pakistan's universities, become dependent on foreign funds?

Atta-ur-Rahman: We have never been dependent on foreign funds. I strongly believe that providing funds for education of our children is our responsibility and I think we should be fulfilling it adequately. About 95% of foreign scholarships to Pakistani students are paid by the government itself.

Foreign funds are directed towards primary education, but I have not seen much in higher education. The aid-giving nations do not want other Koreas or Japans to emerge and start competing with them, so it is not their priority.

UWN: How has HEC's reputation and independence been affected by the fake degrees scandal that has beleaguered politicians?

Atta-ur-Rahman: The fake degree scandal has added to the already excellent reputation of the HEC as an organisation that strictly follows the principles of merit, and that cannot be browbeaten by political pressures from negative forces.

UWN: But when the issue cropped up it was the HEC that was seen as having inadequate control over universities.

Atta-ur-Rahman: There are two important points I'd like to highlight. First, the fake degrees were not issued by universities. These were forged by politicians themselves, by getting hold of degrees of some other persons and fraudulently inserting their names on photocopies. Not a single degree has been wrongfully issued by a university. The public perception that universities were issuing fake degrees is therefore complete nonsense.

Second, HEC control is determined by law. Under the ordinance HEC 'control' is limited to the projects it funds. The public perception of HEC having a greater control over the functioning of the universities is inaccurate.

UWN: But HEC had known of fraudulent degrees and fake institutions at least since 2002 and yet failed to take action because influential people were involved.

Atta-ur-Rahman: During my tenure many illegal institutions and university campuses were closed down. Only once or twice during my tenure as chairman was a case of a false degree brought to our notice. Unless concrete evidence is presented to the HEC, we cannot take any action, and that action, too, is limited to informing other authorities.

HEC also does not have the legal right to force any person to produce his or her degree certificates. If we had issued a letter to any of the politicians asking them to produce their degrees for verification, they would simply have told the HEC that it was none of its business.

In the present situation, HEC has been able to carry out an investigation because of the specific order of the Supreme Court and the request made to it by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). No such Supreme Court order existed during 2002-08 nor had the ECP asked the commission to assist in the verification process. Even with this Supreme Court order, you see that about 450 politicians have failed to produce their certificates in spite of the best of its efforts. HEC cannot do much except report the situation to the ECP.

It was the job of the ECP to have the degrees of...politicians verified before they were allowed to contest. What has happened is that it was assumed by the commission that the declarations made by the politicians were genuine and they were allowed to contest and act as legislators for years before their eligibility was questioned. Eligibility must be established first and not after the election.

UWN: And then there have been charges of plagiarism levelled against university faculty during your tenure as HEC chairman?

Atta-ur-Rahman: On the contrary, we introduced a stoppage of cheating and there was a substantial decrease in plagiarism. Previously no one had come up with a plagiarism policy. We introduced special software, which is called 'I-thenticate', which is now called 'Turn it in'. This software can, within a matter of minutes, check whether a sentence has been copied. This has been distributed to various universities. So now there is a mechanism in place for checking when there was none. This is not just for copying of publications but also for checking theses.

UWN: So once caught, how are these academic thieves penalised?

Atta-ur-Rahman: HEC for the first time in our history formulated a Plagiarism Policy and distributed it to universities. The HEC discovered that five professors of Lahore's Punjab University, from the department of solid state physics, copied the work of a professor in Switzerland and published it as their own in some journal.

On the HEC's recommendation the university set up an inquiry committee and found them guilty. But because they were politically powerful the university was dragging its feet against taking any action against them.

The HEC took a very strong stance since we have a zero tolerance policy against plagiarism. If professors cheat, they have to be chucked out as otherwise what role model will they be for students? We could not order the university to act directly, but we wanted to set an example. So we blocked the development funds of Punjab University for a whole year. Finally action was taken and those professors were chucked out.

There have been a few other instances. Plagiarism used to go unchecked before HEC was established and now it has been almost completely eliminated [by taking] solid action to remove such people who have been detected.

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