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In the name of research

Nov 10: Today the knowledge economy is central to holistic development. The knowledge economy owes its strength to the creation, documentation, dissemination and appropriate use of new knowledge.

Unfortunately most of the developing countries find themselves at the receiving end of the knowledge economy and are simply consumers of knowledge.
To alter this reality and move on to the path of sustainable development is the role of research, which alone can generate new knowledge. In Pakistan the picture of genuine indigenous research is dismal. It is hardly comparable to international standards.

In the post 9/11 scenario when a lot of funding was given to Pakistan to improve our education, the Higher Education Commission embarked on a number of initiatives and generously funded them. One such initiative was to broaden the base of PhDs in the hope that these scholars would create new knowledge through their research and that they would help in the process of sustainable development. The HEC generously funded universities where HEC scholars were enrolled. This included money for tuition fees, reference books, software, lab materials, etc. Besides money given directly to the relevant universities, the concerned scholar was given a monthly stipend and his supervisor received Rs5000 monthly as a supervision fee.

A number of universities found this an appropriate time to launch MPhil/PhD programmes. The impression created was that they were in line with the HEC's desire to produce more PhDs. But their real objective was to enhance their income under the head of tuition fees, books allowance and supervisors' stipends. A large number of universities were not qualified to offer research degrees for the simple reason that they did not have the requisite resources in terms of faculty, library, infrastructure, etc.

The HEC set minimum criteria for PhD programmes but allowed some flexibility within the guidelines provided. For instance, an HEC rule says that to start a PhD programme in a department you have to have three PhDs. The next sentence in this rule reads, "However, in extraordinary cases, even one PhD teacher could start a PhD programme if justified properly and approved by HEC." A number of university departments fulfilled the given criteria on paper and hastily started the programmes. In the absence of a quality-check mechanism at the university level we see a mockery of research programmes at different places.

In response to my last article, 'Education in futility' (Oct 27), I received some revealing emails from MPhil/PhD students from various public and private universities. I shall quote from only two of them. One PhD student writes, "We were not taught research methodology. Rather we were dictated research [sic] just like kids in a primary school. There were no research seminars throughout the coursework. No latest books were available in the library on applied linguistics."

Another student studying for a MPhil leading to a PhD programme in a public university commented, "Being a student of 2nd semester of MPhil and having 3.7 GPA in 1st semester [sic], I should be aware of the research methodologies, research designs, research models, etc. but, honestly speaking, I don't know even the A, B, C of research." These are just two emails which can help us guess what is happening in other universities. In most of the universities there are no sound courses on research methodology and the scholars are at a loss to understand the rationale of a research paradigm.

In some universities educational research is another name for quantitative research. Consequently some self-styled researchers offer their services to analyse data with the help of stereotype t-tests, chi-square tests, etc. Even in the humanities and social sciences, qualitative research is still out of bounds in many universities.

Most universities only fulfil on paper the HEC criteria for offering a programme. A large number of students are enrolled in the absence of requisite resources without any rigorous academic process and evaluation. Certain universities are engaged in admitting candidates every semester. The ultimate result is a heavy backlog of students who are stuck in the research phase and are groping in the dark.

One basic reason for this situation is the absence of qualified supervisors in the concerned universities. The universities need to plan the research supervision schedule at the time of admission but on the contrary students are taught courses with the help of visiting faculty and are left unattended at the research phase. The HEC has allowed MPhil students to complete 30 credit hours and transfer to a PhD programme without even writing a research dissertation. Some obtain an MPhil without even writing a research thesis. They are allowed to complete their degree just by completing the required credit hours.

Some of the HEC approved supervisors have eight students attached to them. The university takes advantage of the flexibility in the HEC rule which reads, "The maximum number of PhD students under the supervision of a full-time faculty member will normally be five which may be increased to eight under special circumstances in teaching departments." Having a large number of students under the pretext of 'special circumstances' fetches handsome sums of money for the supervisors - Rs5000 a month for each student.

But the quality of supervision is bound to deteriorate. Is it humanly possible for a supervisor to properly guide eight PhD scholars while performing his administrative and teaching functions? This is something that needs to be looked into.

The HEC has set up a quality assurance cell and its teams visit different universities. But the responsibility lies mainly with the concerned education institution to maintain its standards. If it is not serious about the quality of its programmes no external agency can bring about a change. In this process of maximisation of profits by the universities - through offering substandard MPhil/PhD programmes - the students are the ultimate losers. In some cases the students are not even aware of the repercussions of enrolling themselves in a substandard research programme. It amounts to wasting their time, energy and efforts.

The students need to be more proactive. It's the students' awareness and active participation in decision-making that can prompt the universities to develop rigorous and reliable academic audit systems and revamp their research degree programmes.

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
The writer is director, Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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'Family visas for scholars: no accord with HEC'
Islamabad: The French embassy in Pakistan on Saturday said it had not signed agreement of any sort with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to provide visa to the families of Pakistani students studying in various French universities.

"We had asked the HEC to consider increasing the amount of scholarship for students with families. Unfortunately, HEC replied it was unable to do so," said a statement by the French embassy.

In response to the demand made by the Pakistani students, who are on HEC scholarship in France, the statement said it was unwise on the part of French authorities to grant visas to the families of students who could not afford to provide them with decent living conditions in France with their individual scholarships.

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UAF in a fix as HEC stops grant
Faisalabad: The University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) has been facing huge financial crunch and finding it difficult to release salaries for the current month as the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has not released the promised grant for the last four months, it is learned.

An HEC team, however, visited the university on Saturday and assured its administration that the government was considering releasing the grant and the issue would be resolved soon.

The UAF had approved Rs900 million annual budget for the current fiscal year and the HEC had promised allocating Rs613 million grant.

However, the commission did not release even a penny during the last four months, landing the university in an outlandish situation and making it difficult to manage even the monthly salaries of its faculty.

The university has around 2,800 employees attached with its six faculties and four institutes. Besides, dozens of employees are also working in directorate of advance studies, division of education and extension, student affairs, research and directorate of sports.

Owing to financial crisis, the UAF has been facing shortage of medicine, fuel, fertilisers, pesticides, fodder for animals and many other required facilities.

Its monthly expenses are around Rs80 million and it spends over Rs55 million alone on paying salaries to the faculty.

Vice-chancellor Dr Iqrar Ahmed said the management had been releasing salaries by utilising its resources for the past three months. However, now the varsity was not in a position to release the salaries for its regular faculty. Besides, he said, the management had also been facing numerous problems in paying remuneration to employees working on ad hoc or daily wages bases.

He said the HEC had released Rs122 million grant in July this year only. Thereafter, the commission did not issue any grant to the UAF, he added.

Dr Iqrar said the situation would hamper UAF research projects which would ultimately affect agriculture sector in the country.

He said that fresh admissions and suspension of different projects had enabled the university in issuing salaries to its faculty.

The vice-chancellor said the administration didn't want hiding the situation from its employees and that's why they all had been apprised of the current financial status.

"I had met with HEC officials in Islamabad and apprised them of the critical situation. They had promised releasing funds soon," Dr Iqrar added.

Besides, he said, a two-member HEC team also visited the university on Saturday and had a meeting with UAF management to discuss ways and means to resolve the financial crisis. The HEC had promised that situation would be improved soon as the government was going to release the funds, he added.

The vice-chancellor said the UAF management was in regular contact with the commission as well as the Punjab governor, who was chancellor of the university. Dawn

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