Tough penalties for violating new graduate education rules

Pakistan’s long-awaited Graduate Education Policy (GEP-2023), which aims to address long-standing research and quality concerns in masters and PhD programmes, has been welcomed by some academics as a boost for quality, while others have criticised it for being too intrusive and encroaching upon university autonomy.

Launched this month by Pakistan’s higher education regulatory body the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the policy incorporates, for the first time, stiff penalties for university departments and academics who violate minimum standards. Such violations include plagiarism.

Pakistan’s HEC launched the GEP-2023 policy document on 19 July, admitting in it that “the worth of graduate education has always been a matter of concern” and that past policies “focused on coursework and not on research”.

The quality of graduate programmes has been a matter of debate for decades in Pakistan, including curriculum standards at graduate and doctorate level. Independent critics believe degrees are not awarded based on learning outcomes but on marks acquired and terms completed.

“With obsolete curricula, students are required to do more coursework and less research, making the country’s higher education [among the] least competitive at global level,” Muhammad Alam Saeed, director of science and technology at the University of Education in Lahore told University World News.

Welcoming the new policy, Saeed said “poor oversight in the past many years led to a mushrooming of universities, each one offering a spate of undergraduate and graduate degree programmes not matching required standards”.

He noted that foreign-qualified graduates are often preferred for jobs in Pakistan, “putting a big question mark on the standards and future of local degree programmes by indigenous universities. It is hoped that the new policy will help address this issue”.

Standards and guidelines

The new policy, which is binding on all public and private universities from the beginning of the 2023 academic year, which starts in August, but will apply to ongoing degrees started before the publication of the policy, places special emphasis on quality assurance and on governance of the doctoral research system at institutions of higher education.

It also sets minimum standards and guidelines for launching new academic programmes and awarding degrees.

It states that only those universities that have “the necessary faculty and infrastructure resources to impart education at the highest level in the discipline” should start graduate programmes.

Highly ranked universities will be able to launch any new degree programme, but the new policy restricts poorly ranked universities from obtaining the requisite HEC “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) unless they have met all the basic requirements for any new programme, including justification of the rationale of the degree, description of the curriculum, admissions criteria, facilities and student-teacher ratios.

Penalties for violations

The document states that “violations or failure to comply” with the policy may lead to “regulatory action including, but not limited to, warnings, direction to stop further admissions, suspension or cancellation of NOCs, public notices, and non-recognition of deficient degrees”.

If admission criteria are violated, the policy recommends the university will have to return three times the amount received from students in the form of a fine. If a degree is awarded without fulfilling the minimum credit hour requirement, disciplinary action will be taken against the department chair and relevant staff.

The department chair will also face disciplinary action in the case of supervision of a PhD dissertation by a person who does not fulfil the minimum criteria for being a PhD supervisor.

A supervisor will not be able supervise more than the HEC-specified number of PhD students at any one time, and failure to comply will lead to a ban on the overseeing of PhD students for five years, as well as action against the department chair.

A PhD degree will not be attested by the HEC if the required number of research publications is not achieved by the student. The examination controller will be penalised as well as the head of department if they allow such students to appear for examination.

The new policy also sets out HEC penalties against researchers and graduates whose theses or research papers are found to have any “major or minor” plagiarism at any stage. The policy hints at action against the supervisors of such theses.

“Under no circumstances shall a dissertation based on plagiarised research be acceptable. It is the primary responsibility of both PhD researchers and their supervisors to prevent plagiarism,” the policy document says, restating in the document existing principles of research integrity.

Is the policy too intrusive?

Some academics described the new policy as “too intrusive”, saying it interferes in the autonomy of universities. But others believe it will help address issues of quality and standards in higher education and bring about positive change that will also improve global recognition of Pakistani academic degrees.

“The new policy sets better standards for better academic programmes [offered] by the universities, but implementation of the prescribed measures should be left to the provincial authorities and to the management of universities,” Professor Dr Wasim Qazi, vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Iqra University, told University World News.

“Direct oversight by the HEC of the execution of these measures and suggestions for retributive action against non-compliant universities [amounts to] too much intrusion into the autonomy of universities.”

However, HEC Chairman Dr Mukhtar Ahmed insisted there was “absolutely no autonomy intrusion”.

He said: “This policy aims to ensure compliance with the regulatory framework to achieve global recognition of our degrees. If these standards are met, our degrees and graduates will have more international recognition and Pakistani universities will also attract foreign students.”

The policy document says it seeks to strike the right balance between autonomy and regulatory constraints, for example, by allowing higher ranked universities more freedom to devise graduate programmes, while restricting lower quality universities.

However, some academics believe the new policy lacks an element of capacity building for universities that may want to introduce and manage competitive degree programmes, and others that may require support to improve quality.

New rules for PhDs

The policy discourages admission to doctoral degrees merely based on completion of a stipulated number of years of education, and requires universities to assess other qualifications and skills, such as applicants’ ability to write and conduct research, before making offers to PhD candidates.

It states that universities should “ensure that PhD programmes are open only to individuals who carry a passion for, and deep interest in, academics and research, and who have demonstrated that they can handle the academic rigour required to complete a PhD degree”.

The aim is for PhD graduates from Pakistani universities to possess expertise in their field of study, be able to conduct high quality research, and have strong scholarly writing skills relevant to their field of study.

“It may be preferable to not confer a PhD degree than to confer a PhD degree based on substandard academic and research work,” the policy states.

Not all institutions will be allowed to run PhD programmes. The policy emphasises that institutions “must possess resources to offer quality education at the highest level to offer PhD degree programmes. Universities must obtain HEC approval by submitting evidence of compliance with these standards before launching a PhD programme”.