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Revisiting PhD programmes

Oct 22: Education has been a neglected area in Pakistan. Different governments made tall claims but in reality education was never a priority in this country. However we see some policies, and reports with long list of recommendations. These plans look great on paper but when it comes to implementation things fall a part. Once such policy document was the document prepared by the Task Force on Higher Education and Society entitled, Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise (2002). The document laments on the quality of higher education in Pakistan and acknowledges the central role of faculty in the process of generating knowledge. The document also underlines the significance of research in higher education.

Research in Higher Education received lip service during different regimes but there was no compulsive motivation for the faculty members in the universities to carry it out. Decisions for hiring of faculty, promotions, and administrative positions were generally made on a set criteria other than research. The lack of research culture can also be seen by the fact that there are not many quality research journals published in Pakistan. During different regimes rules were made in colleges and universities for hiring and promotions but these rules were either ignored or bent to accommodate the political pressures. In universities certain faculty members who were appointed for their political leanings made their way to the upper rungs considering these positions as their right. In some universities the management had to yield to the overwhelming political pressure. In such environment the only competence that was required was a certain political leaning and not research skills.

The rule of having a certain number of papers for the promotion from one professorial rank to another was turned into a farce as some innovative ways were coined to complete the number of papers. In most of the cases "research journals" were initiated from certain departments/faculty and the papers from the same university were published. In some cases, when it was required, acceptance letters were acquired from the editors. Hardly any research journal was peer reviewed. In such bleak times, however, there were some universities in which some faculty members were involved in genuine research but they were a negligible minority.

Meanwhile University Grants Commission was restructured as the Higher Education Commission (HEC) through a presidential order on 11 September, 2002. The HEC, under the leadership of Dr Ataur Rehman, proved to be a more dynamic body as compared to the UGC. A part from other initiatives it started putting a lot of emphasis on research in Higher Education and on producing more PhDs. New opportunities, in the form of foreign and indigenous scholarships, were announced. More funds for research have been made available. Research grants were offered to present papers in international conferences. Besides these opportunities the HEC offered certain proposals for the hiring and promotion of faculty in the universities. With these initiatives a large number of people decided to get into PhD programmes. Similarly a number of universities found it an opportune time to embark on doctorates.

With insufficient planning and resources a number of universities announced their PhD programmes but soon the gaps in the programme became so visible that criticism from different quarters came pouring in. Interestingly the target of this criticism was the HEC and not the individual universities which was not fair to the HEC as it can make certain rules but cannot (and should not) interfere the day to day monitoring of quality issues of the universities. The universities have to make their internal monitoring so strong and rigorous that there are no holes in the system.

Let us look at some of the problems in the existing PhD programmes in some of the universities. In Pakistan, because of the generous funding of the HEC, a number of universities enrolled a large number of students in their MPhil/PhD programmes by making the admission procedure more lenient. A number of candidates who did not deserve to be on a PhD programme got in.

For a successful PhD programme following resources should be in place. Firstly, a sufficient number of qualified faculty should be available on permanent basis. Secondly, a library with rich and contemporary reading resources should be available. Thirdly, Proper offices/spaces should be provided to PhD students with computer and internet facilities. Fourthly, supervision choices should be there so that a student should have an option to chose his/her supervisor according to mutual interest and expertise and finally supervisor should be accessible for guidance

There are universities in Paksitan where above facilities are available in a PhD programme but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the majority of the universities , such programmes fail on different counts. Some of the aspects which need to be taken care of are, if there are a number of departments where there is only one permanent PhD faculty in the field and MPhil/PhD programmes are being offered. Or whether, in the majority of the universities and colleges the libraries are not up to date for research programmes. A large number of MPhil/PhD students are enrolled as compared to the insufficient sources available. Also In most of the universities PhD students are not given separate offices with computer and internet facilities. Additionally in a PhD programme, the final research thesis occupies a central place. Therefore the advisor/advisee ratio becomes crucial. Unfortunately that is not the practice in most of the universities. A supervisor has attached a large number of supervisees with him/her. This is mainly because a supervisor is paid Rs5,000 per month if the scholar is HEC-sponsored. Lastly, an unrealistic advisor/advisee ratio can lead to different problems. For instance a candidate has to work in the field of interest of his/her supervisor as there is not much choice available. Another associated problem is that a supervisor is not accessible by the students as he/she is advising a number of other students.

The above issues lead to a very serious problem, which has not been highlighted in various critiques. It is the unending delay in the terminal phase of research. Currently a large number of students in Mphil/PhD programmes have done their course work and are stuck at the thesis stage. This was bound to happen as most of the universities started their programmes half baked, enrolling a large number of students, and totally ignoring the most important phase of a research programme, i.e., research thesis.

One stereotype approach is to hold the HEC responsible for all the problems. But the Commission has a limited role to play and it's the educational institutions themselves who have to monitor themselves. If universities are serious in making their programmes more manageable and respectable they have to enrich their resources in terms of qualified permanent faculty, equipment, and library. They also need to make their internal academic bodies and procedures more rigorous and efficient. One simple principle should be adhered to that PhD programmes are not to earn money but to earn respect.

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
The writer is a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities & Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics. Email: (The News)

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