Higher Education in Pakistan – the Flip Side of the Coin

Over the past decade, the government in Pakistan has spent prodigiously on higher education but to little practical avail. With the increasing debt mark, internal and external, the government has still got radical cuts to make in useless expenditure in this sector.

Interest in postgraduate education skyrocketed with the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan during the rule of the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. Getting hundreds of millions to spend on postgraduate research each year, HEC started channeling the money through two main conduits: sponsoring students to earn doctorate degrees in Pakistan as well as abroad in their respective disciplines, and funding research projects headed by senior academicians, usually administrative heads of departments.

The ‘leaks’ in both these channels soon became apparent. Millions spent on a single PhD student sent abroad was incentive enough for foreign universities, mostly in English-speaking countries, to open their doors to these ‘golden hens’ each of which was worth at least 5 million rupees. On the domestic front, monetary incentives for supervising students at postgraduate levels thrilled the senior faculty members. Now they could earn much more by producing MPhil and PhD degree-holders as well as get extra funding for proposed research projects approved by the HEC.

The assumptions underlying both these two main schemes of elevating the status of higher education proved faulty before long. No research projects seemed to have any significant positive impact on the country’s economy nor did the rising numbers of doctorate degree holders do any good to the nation. With dozens of PhDs now in most fields, many qualified from the west, the country still has to send drugs abroad for testing; it has to call China to manage even a moderate level disaster risk; and the research publications of its ‘scholars’ and ‘scientists’ are just run-of-the-mill additions to a useless clutter of journals for whose publishing who knows how many valuable trees had to lose their existence.

The actual damage done by this sloppy scheme of affairs is even more pervasive beside the billions lost in what has been little more than filling papers (all those degrees and nominal research included), though the beneficiaries must be shaking their heads over it. On one hand, the standards set for research stained what can really be called ‘quality work’. A mere rehash of previously published work (a good deal of which was either plagiarized or outright bogus) was approved as ‘OK’ for promotions. On the other hand, those believing in genuine, original research work, but serving in subordinate positions (students and junior employees) were, and are, exploited through appropriation of their work, stealing their research ideas, and forcing them from positions of authority to surrender their potential to those in administrative control of their careers.

Despite the indescribable damage done to the spirit of education and faculty of research on the whole in this country, the waste of country’s precious funds over hollow academic activity continues with all unbridled force. The initiation of the tenure track system of payment, whereby a university faculty member with a PhD earns a six-figure income by just publishing one or two papers a year (in journals the HEC calls ‘recognized’), added to the arbitrariness of this entire education hype.  And this in a country where every fifth person lives in miserable poverty!

Like many other institutions, higher education has been a failure in Pakistan. And the higher you get on this ladder, the farther you go from the ‘ground’ which can safely be called achievement. With no scrutiny or accountability process, one act of charity for this land is to say no to higher education. Let’s hope the youth get the point.