HEC analysis: One step forward, two steps back?

One step forward, two steps back?
November: There are all kinds of rumors afloat regarding the Higher Education Commission (HEC) after Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman stepped down as its chairman. There is talk of its budget being curtailed drastically, forcing it perhaps to abandon most of its programmes. Then there are fears that the HEC may be taken over by the Ministry of Education, a move that will result in jeopardizing its independence. And with it will end Dr Atta-ur-Rahman's era of success in science and technology.

The rumors are really frightening for the intelligentsia as it is the development of technology that leads a country towards being included in the list of developed countries. Looking back into history, it is evident that only the nations with advanced technology dominated the scene. Our beloved Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (Peace be upon him) also emphasised the need for advanced technology.

Muslims ruled the world for thousand years, then came the Germans, the British, and now the Americans and the Chinese; merely on the basis of science and technology.

This is an era of economic development, no doubt. But the economy of any country depends on the development of science and technology. And technology is backed by scientific research. Not only that, the research in other areas such as psychology, economics, politics, etc., also demands a scientific approach.

There was negligence towards science and technology in Pakistan during the last half century. Funding for the universities provided by the University Grants Commission (UGC) was barely enough to meet employees' salaries and to a very basic level research. Pakistani researchers and scientists who were competent enough, used to seek jobs in other countries. No one wanted to join research as a career. There were was a no availability of databases, no funding for international collaborations, very little funding for carrying out research work and very few grants for PhD scholarships. The number of PhDs produced in the country was very low.

And what was the outcome of this negligence? Our cities are in the dark, even in the 21st century. Our industry is inefficient. We cannot even produce small items within the country and have to rely on imports from abroad, costing us huge amount of foreign exchange. We are at least 100 years behind the modern world. The developed countries buy our agricultural products at cheap rates and sell us back the valuable products, produced with the use of advanced technology, at a very high cost. We are even unable to produce most items needed for our defense and are constantly looking towards China and other countries to help us with that. It was even becoming difficult to maintain our nuclear programme without which our survival is at stake. The Prof Atta-ur-Rahman era revolutionised scientific and social sciences research in the country. His way of working as was exemplary. Even our neighboring countries were impressed by his way of bringing about a revolution in IT and Higher Education here.

It is unfortunate how some scientists and politicians initiated a negative campaign against the efforts made by the HEC. It has become a sort of tradition for our new governments to sabotage even the good deeds of the previous government without considering the destruction of the system which is capable of throwing us back by many years. Not investing in the right direction today will help in our remaining an underdeveloped country forever.

Even one of the most prestigious science journals Nature (UK) has shown its concern on the future of science and technology in Pakistan. While appreciating the efforts made by Prof Atta-ur-Rahman and his team, it has termed his era as the "silent revolution" in Pakistan. Doing so it also points out that Pakistan may go back to the stone age if the HEC is neglected or altered.

The HEC has launched many new and innovative programmes towards enhancing the quality of higher education here. Human resource development (HRD) and investment in scientific projects are two important areas crucial for the advancement of science and technology anywhere.

HRD can be further ivided into two components:

Production of high-quality PhDs and post doctorates. The HEC in this regard has initiated very comprehensive programmes and has concentrated both on the number and quality of the PhDs produced. There was no set criteria in the past for maintaining the quality of higher education in the country. But the HEC established full sections on quality assurance not only in HEC but also in all the universities of the country.

Retaining the eminent researchers in the country is also an extremely important aspect. Not doing so will result in brain drain. The HEC has taken very positive steps to counter this situation. In fact it brought back many of our competent researchers from abroad as foreign faculty who are currently serving in different universities to improve the standards of education there.

Every university faculty member must have excellence in academics and research. University teaching is not a nine-to-five type of a job. The university is a place where new knowledge emerges and grows which is possible only if one has peace of mind. One cannot do creative work if has to look for tuitions or some other small business in the evening to meet the demands of the family.

One cannot think deeply about the innovations needed in scientific research without a free mind. What would one do under such circumstances? Probably just duplicate the old research. And this is what has been happening here for the last 60 years. The HEC has introduced a tenure track system under which only highly competent faculty may be recruited and retained on the basis of expert opinion from foreign countries. This system was designed to create scientific atmosphere in the universities where faculty members would prefer working hard in the laboratories rather than go looking for other jobs.

A strong HRD is also mandatory for our school and college system. At present we don't have enough competent teachers available for teaching at these levels. With the HEC programmes, we will have a high quality of MS/PhDs in various disciplines who can deliver better education in our schools and colleges.

Judicious investment in scientific research is also mandatory for achieving excellence in higher education and to become a developed nation, ultimately. The HEC has initiated many programmes that should be strengthened. It has a well-documented monitoring system for all of its projects. In science we cannot be definite about any results, but at least with the efforts made by the HEC we are moving in a positive direction.

The Ministry of Education itself has very broad mandate to cover and it should concentrate on school and college education. Dissolving the HEC or giving it to the Ministry of Education and restraining its funding will put us back on the path to the Stone Age.

By Dr Amer Jamil
The writer is associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. (Dawn)

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Analysis: Higher education and the HEC
With a new government and a change of leadership at the HEC, this may be a good time for the HEC to review its own role and more carefully identify the ways in which it can contribute to improving both quality and access in the realm of higher education

There has been considerable discussion in the media over the last few weeks on the performance of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) under the stewardship of Dr Atta-ur-Rehman. Some of it has focused a little too stridently on the person of Dr Rehman. What is important, however, is to learn from the experience of the HEC, not least because our education system remains in a state of acute crisis.

One lesson that we should learn from the sharp rise of the budget for higher education, since the coming into being of the HEC, is that we cannot solve the problems that beset our education system just by putting more funds into it.

The impression, deliberate or otherwise, created by the HEC that it was somehow equipped to transform the higher education system in the country was not entirely accurate. True, a large number of candidates have been supported by the HEC to work towards their PhDs. A certain number will doubtless benefit and put the opportunity to good use. All this is commendable. Equally, there is the issue of merit and standards, which has been frequently discussed in the media.

A key question also relates to what kind of institutions of higher education there are to provide these PhDs or those working towards that end with an enabling environment in order for them to make a meaningful contribution once they have their degree.

At another level the HEC effort fell well short in terms of supporting humanities and the social sciences. Its predisposition towards the natural sciences was also reflected in the entirely impractical and grandiose proposal of the kind that led many to wonder whether HEC was often playing to the gallery: the creation, more or less, simultaneously of not one or two but nine engineering universities (widely reported in the media). It might be interesting research for someone to investigate how often and in what circumstances has any nation managed such a feat.

In a country facing formidable problems of extremism, intolerance and societal fracturing, it was not a small omission on the part of the HEC to have considered the social sciences and the arts to be of only marginal importance. Although it subsequently tried to correct the sharp imbalance, which is creditable, much distance remains to be covered still on that count.

The other area that fell largely outside the ambit of the HEC was that of colleges. Colleges do not fall under the purview of the HEC but the provinces made no effort to correct the situation at that level even as HEC was trying to work at the higher end of education. These institutions just fell through the cracks, as it were.

Here it might also be useful to refer to some of the media discussion suggesting that the expenditure on higher education was inordinately high compared to what was spent on basic education. This intra-sectoral wrangling over meagre resources is simply a distraction. The issue with the expenditure on higher education as indeed with that on basic education is its effectiveness. And this has little to do with the argument made popular at one point by the World Bank suggesting that rates of return for basic education are higher than those for higher education.

The truth of the matter is that we need to spend much more on both higher as well as basic education. For the two are far from unconnected. Nor can reform of basic and higher education be seen sequentially. Unless the issues of higher education, including at the college level are addressed, reform of basic education cannot go very far.

After all, those who can properly teach at this level, write readable and relevant textbooks, and design appropriate assessment systems that go beyond testing for memory will all come from the realm of higher education.

All of this is not say that HEC has not made any difference. Enrolment in the higher education sector has gone up sharply. But we need to be wary of trading in quality for numbers. It seems very similar to the situation in the realm of basic education where again much has been made of sharply higher enrolments and the pursuit of Education for All within the framework of Millennium Development Goals. But the level of achievement even as assessed by the National Education Assessment System (NEAS) is far from encouraging.

We certainly need a much higher percentage of our population having access to higher education but not at the expense of minimum standards. To offer access without standards or quality is, in effect, to offer very little. We have seen how our master's and bachelor's degrees have been devalued over the years. We should be cautious, lest we end up doing the same with PhD programmes.

Reservations have been expressed regarding the selection process for those sent abroad but the problem is clearly greater with respect to PhD programmes pursued locally. Many institutions have been quick to enrol students in PhD programmes regardless of faculty available in the requisite areas of work.

Consider the example of the University of Education. Having been created in 2002, it had by 2004, in the short span of a little over two years, already enrolled 181 PhD students and this in a situation in which the university had only ten faculty members with PhD qualifications.

Now with a new government and a change of leadership at the HEC, this may be a good time for the HEC to review its own role and more carefully identify the ways in which it can contribute to improving both quality and access in the realm of higher education.

For instance, quality assurance across a multiplicity of disciplines does not lie within the province of a centralised mechanism. In any case, a good place for the HEC to start would be its neighbourhood: enable the Quaid-i-Azam University to become an apex institution of excellence.

Abbas Rashid
Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at abbasrh@gmail.com (Daily Times)

Your Comments
"you are right it is very unfortunate that some politicians and scientists are trying to devaluate the tremendous efforts made by HEC in the context of higher education. there is nothing wrong with our basic education but the need is to produce more and more scientists. it is Dr Atta who made a culture of PhD, at least at the moment if not of research, in the country and now one can see that every graduate is trying to get some how a research degree. without research no country can progress but unfortunatly pakistan was pushed back again by some piltical scientists i would say."
Name: Tahir Hussain
Email: pak_biotechnologist@yahoo.com
City, Country: peshawar, pakistan

"I remember an Article appeared in the same site denouncing Dr. Ataurehman about his deeds at the HEC, its polices ,its contribution to the Higher edu. and the mushroom growth of Phds,the futility of such a practice and the sum DR. SAHIB spent within the years he remained as its Boss. He was non other but THE nuclear tecnology dealer MR QADIR THE PROLIFERATION Hero.Atleast some one has come up to tell the truth, besides no body can hide from the sun behind his fingers AS THE FAMOUS PUSHTO proverb say so."
Name: sajjad samad
Email: sajjad_samad@yahoo.com
City, Country: pakistan

"it was a very good and appriciable step by the govt to dismiss Atta Ur Rehaman (a mere courpt and indecent Person). in the name of scholarships, particularly the foreign scholarships many people were sent abroad, most of them relatives or friend of People working in HEC. THe HEC criterion for scholarships its self was biased, supporting symester system, supporting particularly rich people or students from rich universities. HEC command should be given to the ministry of education, and all those PD,s inducted in HEC over the last 5 years should be kicked out. Its name should be changed back to UGC. Probe in to all scholarships cancelled or given be conducted to evaluate favouritism. to mention many scholars were denied for the scholarship just on the last moments, by putting illogical objections. DOWN DOWN ATTA UR REHMAN DOWN DOWN HEC ."
Name: Muhammad Ishaq
Email: mu_ishaq@yahoo.com
City, Country: islamabad, pakistan

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