The resurgence of higher education in Pakistan

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By Dr S Sohail H Naqvi
Vice Chancellor
Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan

“In the last 10 years Pakistan has emerged as the country with the highest percentage of Highly Cited Papers compared with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China),” states a recently released report. This is all the more unexpected, considering the complete state of disarray Pakistan’s higher education system found itself in at the start of the current millennium and with an academic degree system incompatible with international norms, hardly serving 2% of the 17–23 year-old cohort, producing less than 300 high quality international publications and less than 200 PhDs (too few of which were in STEM fields). This was no surprise, however, given the utter and complete lack of support of the higher education sector with less than US$1 million allocated to support research at all universities in the country, which received a total accumulated support of less than US$75 million for their operations and new developments.

This note highlights Pakistan’s journey of the past decade and a half, which has witnessed the transformation of one of the least developed higher education systems in the world to one that is competitive with those of future leading economies. Pakistan’s advancements in higher education serve as an example for the world: being one of the world’s largest developing countries, Pakistan formulated and executed a long-term strategy for the rejuvenation of a sector that is now generally recognised as the backbone of development in the country and, certainly, as the heart of the knowledge economy that every country aims to strengthen.

The developing world faces ostensibly hard choices in terms of resource allocation, between satisfying essential needs like clean drinking water and long-term investments in our economy, such as support for research. Arguing for such long-term investments was difficult, if not impossible, prior to the release of a report from the World Bank’s task force on higher education, Higher Education in Developing Countries, Perils and Promise (2000). The crucial role of higher education in development had generally been ignored. Development agencies, while recognising the essential role of education in development, essentially focused only on primary education. This report, formulated by a large task force of international experts, advanced the argument for supporting higher education in developing countries, concluding that, “higher education is no longer a luxury: it is essential to national social and economic development.”

Following the release of the World Bank report, Pakistan was one of the first countries to establish a Task Force for Reform in Higher Education, which was set up in 2001 and led by Syed Babar Ali, pro-chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, and Shams Kassim-Lakha, the then president of Aga Khan University. The task force produced a comprehensive report, which recommended the establishment of an independent Higher Education Commission (HEC) for the funding, quality assurance and support of the higher education sector. The HEC would also serve as a primary resource for advice, development and reform of the sector. The report also recommended the restructuring of the university governance and management system, establishing a clear demarcation between governance being exercised by a Board of Governors and management being exercised by the vice chancellor through an executive council. Additional recommendations addressed the system of performance and reward for faculty members, quality assurance system, curriculum and funding of the institutions.

In conjunction with the task force, a secondary body called the “Study Group on Science and Technology” was established later in 2001, by the then minister for science and technology, Prof Atta-ur-Rahman, to provide focused attention to the fundamental role of science and technology in national development. In early 2002, a joint presentation of the task force and the study group to the government resulted in the approval of key recommendations, including: the establishment of the Higher Education Commission, the restructuring of universities to differentiate governance and management, and significant enhancement in funding of universities. October 2002 saw the inception of the Higher Education Commission with Prof Atta-ur-Rahman as its first chairman, allowing the reform process to take practical shape.

The establishment of the commission with adequate funding, administrative autonomy and complete support of the government created the critical platform to drive the higher education reform process, which was launched in five phases over the first decade of its establishment. The reform process was based on certain universal truths in higher education: for example, that academics understand university management best and that merit and transparency are at the heart of the operation of an academic institution. For any institution of higher learning, it is also understood that the faculty is the heart and soul of the university and, therefore, their development must precede any reform. It was also understood that in higher education, the concept of quality is not local; rather, it is defined internationally. Finally, creation of new knowledge is a core university function, without which an institution of higher learning cannot be recognised as a university. The phased development of the higher education sector was not sequential; it was staggered, in that as each new phase was launched, work on the previous phases continued.

First phase

The first stage of the reform process, which may best be characterised as the revolutionary phase, witnessed the launch of more than 150 new initiatives. These focused on faculty development through large scale international scholarship programmes, IT infrastructure of the universities, the establishment of laboratories and the launch of a competitive research grant programme. The medium-term strategy developed for the 2005–2010 period prioritised access, quality, relevance and clarity that all roads to reform would lead through faculty development. The scholarship programme prioritised the placement of students in the premier institutions of Continental Europe due to their minimal tuition fee structure and support for such initiatives by European governments.

Recognising the lack of capacity of institutions to implement the ambitious reform agenda, this initial phase focused on centrally developed programmes that were implemented at the local institutional level with minimal customisation. The early days of the commission also witnessed intense efforts to restructure the university governance and management system; an effort that had to be subsequently abandoned due to significant resistance from the faculty and the university administration, along with complexities of the legislative process required to institutionalise reform. These challenges served as early lessons that, in practice, higher education reform requires constant adjustment, re-prioritisation and dynamic adjustments.

Second phase

The second phase of reform focused on a paradigm shift in higher education through the launch of four-year undergraduate degree programmes replacing the existing primarily two-year degree programmes for most disciplines, other than engineering, medicine and a few other professional programmes. For the faculty, a tenure track system of appointment was launched, linking performance and progress through the ranks. To support the paradigm shift from a teacher-centred approach to a learning-centred approach, the Learning Innovation Division at the commission was strengthened to provide faculty with development programmes, and guide the institutions to take ownership of this critical shift. Efforts were also initiated to develop capacity at the institutional level, which would allow each institution to define its vision as well as a strategy to achieve it.

Within a few years of launch of the reform programmes, the landscape of higher education started to visibly alter. There was a new energy in the system, research paper output demonstrated a steep rise, international conference appearance of university researchers significantly increased, enrolment in science and engineering was given a boost, and the number of high quality applicants for international scholarships increased substantially.

Impact Factor Journal Publication Output from Pakistan

Third phase

The third phase of implementation provided a focus on quality and equity with the restructuring of the two-year master’s degree and three- year (nominal) PhD degree programmes, with associated coursework requirements both at the master’s and PhD levels. Additional requirements for PhD, as per international best practice, required assessment by independent international reviewers and publication in a recognised journal. Uniform minimum standards for faculty appointment at various levels were also defined, along with a vice chancellor appointment mechanism to provide an avenue for the best and brightest to be appointed to lead academic institutions. Launch of the virtual university with broadcast of lectures using the satellite TV network and an internet- based return path allowed student across the country to gain access to high-quality education. A needs-based system for provision of financial support to disadvantaged students allowed for an inclusive system for improvement of higher education in the country. This phase also witnessed the establishment of new institutions across the country in 2nd and 3rd tier cities – a move that had its fair share of critics concerned about the sacrifice of quality to quantity. The performance of these universities over the years, such as the Karakorum University, located at the base of the mighty Karakorum and Himalayan mountain ranges, have, however, demonstrated that universities with good leadership and financial support are able to flourish and prosper to play their essential role in the social and economic development of the regions they are located in.

Fourth phase

With multiple programmes underway across the country, it was necessary to focus on institutionalisation in the fourth phase, with a focus on sustainability of the reform process and complete transfer of ownership of the multiple initiatives to the institutions themselves. It was also necessary to focus on broadening the base of financing of the higher education sector. The Baluchistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences has established itself as a premier institution of higher learning in the country, bringing hope to an underdeveloped region of the country. The second phase of the HEC development strategy, covering the period of 2010 to 2015, therefore focused on the leadership role of universities in the socio-economic development of the country with universities building economies, communities and leadership. While some progress has been made by the leading institutions in this dimension, the low human development indicators of the country, poor state of child nutrition and unchecked population growth do raise alarms regarding linkage of available knowledge and expertise in the country with the national policy framework.

Convocation of the Baluchistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS)

Fifth phase

The fifth and final phase of development of the first decade of the commission began to see the role of universities in the development of the country diversify beyond academics and research. Institutions such as the Sukkhur Institute of Business Administration, in rural Sindh, are actively working with the local community, supporting local business, managing community colleges and even supporting the local schools. Some of the leading institutions began to support the local economy, working with local farmers, local enterprises, companies and a diverse body of institutions. The initial seeds of entrepreneurship in academic institutions were also sown, and institutions started to focus on intellectual property protection, commercialisation and incubation of new companies. Consider that, during the first two years of existence, the LUMS Center for Entrepreneurship has incubated 53 companies that have created more than 500 direct and indirect jobs and generated more than US$2 million in revenue. Several of these companies are marketplaces that have generated economic opportunities for thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers. What is especially noteworthy is that eight of the incubated companies have received US$1.5 million in equity investments, valuing the companies at more than US$16 million.

Sukkhur Institute of Business Administration

Impact of reform

The impact of the reform process over the first decade of HEC existence exceeded the cumulative results of the first 55 years of existence of the country. In the priority areas of science and engineering, the performance was particularly impressive with more than 10 times the number of PhDs produced from 2003–2012, as compared to the 1947–2002 period. Biological, agricultural and veterinary sciences also saw impressive gains. Pakistan was regularly characterised as a rising star by Thomson Reuter’s ScienceWatch for various disciplines, showing the highest percentage increase in the world for total citations of work published by Pakistani authors in leading research journals. Between 2003 and 2010, SCOPUS indexed publications from Pakistan increased by more than 320%, the fourth highest rate of increase in the world, behind only Malaysia, Iran and China.

Following the strong showing of Pakistani institutions in the research arena, it was only natural then that the best institutions would start improving their status in world rankings. Ten Pakistani institutions are among the 350 institutions ranked by QS Quacquarelli Symonds in 2016. LUMS, the top ranked institutions from Pakistan, is ranked at 111 in the Asian University rankings, while NUST comes in at 112 in the Asian rankings, but is ranked higher in the QS World University Rankings. Both institutions, together with Quaid-e-Azam University (which has the best publication and citation per faculty record in Pakistan), are vying to enter the ranks of the top 100 institutions in Asia. The internationally acclaimed HEJ Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi alone enrols more than 450 students in MPhil leading to PhD programmes, including the highest number of foreign PhD students in the country. The second decade of the HEC is therefore witnessing a race to the top of universities in Pakistan that are enhancing post-graduate programme offerings, establishing linkages with industry, launching new research centres and initiatives and supporting entrepreneurship and business incubation.

The task to improve and reform the higher education sector continues with the leading institutions now aiming to become prominent at the regional level and the commission working to expand scholarship and research support programmes, while putting greater emphasis on creating greater impact of university-level research and development work. Institutional capacity for the provision of high-quality higher education remains a concern, as the pressure to expand access to higher education, which is nearing 10% of the relevant age cohort now, only grows. The government has ambitious plans to establish at least one university in every district of the country while the commission must ensure that quality is not compromised. Development of the higher education sector will also require significantly enhanced allocation of resources by the government for research and technology.

The impact of higher education reform in Pakistan is pervasive across every sphere of activity in the country. The ever increasing linkages with international counterparts at the individual – and institutional – level are testimony to the gradual acceptance of the Pakistani higher education sector as an important partner of the global higher education system. While the resources required by the institutions to join the ranks of the world’s premier institutions remain elusive, the quantum of talent available, and opportunities for their nurturing and growth in the universities, build hope for the continued vibrancy of the higher education sector in Pakistan.

Dr S Sohail H Naqvi has been the vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) since July 2013. Prior to that he was the executive director of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for eight year, where he oversaw implementation of an ambitious portfolio of programmes that resulted in an explosive growth in research activity in the universities in Pakistan, quadrupling in the number of students, standardisation of programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate level with clear quality related benchmarks along with the implementation of a comprehensive higher education quality assurance regime. He has extensive teaching, research and entrepreneurial experience both in the US and Pakistan, and has also been a consultant on higher education for the Asian Development Bank and World Bank. He was awarded Order of the “Palmes Académiques” with rank of Chevalier, by the French government, and the Sitar-e-Imtiaz by the government of Pakistan for his services to higher education.