An army of PhDs

More money in Pakistan’s higher-education system does not automatically imply more highly educated people

One of the key objectives of the foreign aid that Pakistan receives thanks to its frontline status in the war on terror is to draw students away from the madrassa system and into ‘mainstream’ schools. In the short term, that objective may even be achieved by the heavy injection of funding of schools and universities that follow a (relatively) secular curriculum. Pakistan’s budget for higher education is now 12 times what it was three years ago.

For both foreign donors and the Pakistani government, quantitative targets — numbers of schools, colleges, teachers and graduates — are easier to define, track and achieve. But focus on quantitative targets alone, without a genuine effort to reform and develop knowledge capital, stores up problems for the future.

In the first of a two-part article on this issue, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist writes of the effects the newly expanded budgets on the higher education system.

Driven by the unfavourable comparison with neighbours, the need for university reform finally became an issue. The first big idea was that Pakistan needed more universities.

So today all it takes is a piece of paper from the HEC and some paint. Some colleges have literally had their signboards taken down for repainting, and been put back up changed into “universities” the next day.

By such sleight of hand the current tally of public universities, according to the HEC website, is now officially 47, up from the 23 officially listed in 1996. In addition, there are eight degree awarding public sector institutes.

Unfortunately, this is merely a numbers game. All new public sector universities lack infrastructure, libraries, laboratories, adequate faculty, or even a pool of students academically prepared to study at the university level.

Another poorly thought-out, and dangerous, HEC scheme involves giving massive cash awards to university teachers for publishing research papers – Rs 60,000 per paper published in a foreign journal.

Although these stimulants are said to have increased the number of papers published in international journals by a whopping 44 per cent, there is little evidence that this increase in volume is the result of an increase in genuine research activity.

The fact is only a slim minority of Pakistani academics possesses the ethics, motivation, and capability needed for genuine scientific discovery and research. For the majority, the HEC incentives are a powerful reason to discover the art of publishing in research journals without doing research, to find loopholes, and to learn how to cover up one’s tracks.

Established practices of plagiarizing papers, multiple publications of slightly different versions of the same paper in different research journals, fabricating scientific data, and seeking out third-rate foreign journals with only token referees are now even more common. The HEC has broadcast the message: corruption pays.

The casual disregard for quality is most obvious in the HEC’s massive PhD production programme. This involves enrolling 1,000 students in Pakistani universities every year for PhD degrees.

Thereby Pakistan’s “PhD deficit” (it produces less than 50 PhDs per annum at present) will supposedly be solved and it will soon be at par with India. In consequence, an army of largely incapable and ignorant students, armed with hefty HEC fellowships, has sallied forth to write PhD theses.

Although the HEC claims that it has checked the students through a “GRE type test” (the American graduate school admission test), a glance at the question papers reveals it to be only a shoddy literacy and numeric test.

In my department, advertised as the best physics department in the country, the average PhD student now has trouble with high-school level physics and even with reading English.

Nevertheless there are as many as 18 PhD students registered with one supervisor! In the QAU biology department, that number rises to 37 for one supervisor. HEC incentives have helped dilute PhD qualifying exams to the point where it is difficult for any student not to pass. [Dawn]

Related Link: United States’ Congressional Research Service Report (Dec 2004) on Musharraf’s failure on Madrassa reform (pdf).

3 thoughts on “An army of PhDs”

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  2. Good luck to all those Pak university students who get a phd after dodging all those AK47 bullets that zip past them routinely.

  3. I do agree with the author. I think what is required to have a professional teaching staff for these Universities, rich libraries and a genuine motovation towards research. Without these factors , one must not hope to solve the problem of lower number of PhDs.

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