The recent announcement of results by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) once again exposed the inadequacies in quality of higher education in Pakistan. According to the result, just a little over three per cent of all candidates were able to qualify the Central Superior Services (CSS) examinations of 2017 by securing the minimum passing marks. Figures show a total of 9,391 candidates appeared in the written examination of the year 2017; out of them only 310 candidates, including 199 males and 111 females, finally qualified.
The results of the CSS exams have been facing decline for several years, as 3.33pc candidates qualified the exam in 2014, 3.11pc in 2015 and 2.06pc in 2016. The percentage of candidates qualifying the written test has come down from 9.75% in 2011 to 3.3 % in 2017.
According to the Annual Report of FPSC 2016, a large number of vacancies i.e 95 vacancies out of 333, remained un-filled due to the reason that candidates from respective quotas could not pass the competitive examination and examiners as well as Viva Voce board of the Commission shared concerns on declining standard of education. Examiners’ Assessment Reports for CSS CE 2015 and 2016 observed that low level of general knowledge; poor written expression, grammatical mistakes and lack of analytical approach were some of the main reasons for dismal performance of candidates in competitive exams.
The scheme of syllabi (1981) for competitive examination was reviewed by the Commission in 2015. The Commission conducted the CSS CE 2016 based on the new syllabi. Under the new scheme, marks of many subjects were rationalized and six new optional subjects viz Governance and Public Policy, Criminology, Gender Studies, Environmental Sciences, Anthropology and Town Planning & Urban Management were added to the list. Besides, Comparative Study of Major Religions was introduced for non-Muslims. Optional subjects were also re-grouped to provide level playing field to both students of natural sciences and social sciences
The continuous disappointing results civil service competitive exam puts great responsibility over Chairman of Higher Education Commission (HEC) as one of important major function of HEC is to ensure academic excellence by identifying flaws and failures in the system. It is right time for the HEC leadership to work closely with the 189 public and private sector universities and other stakeholders to fix the problem.
Taking notice of the CSS results, newly appointed Chairman HEC Dr. Tariq Banuri termed the decline as national crisis. Declaring it as most important challenge during his tenure, he announced to set up a high level committee to identify the specific weaknesses (which universities, which subjects, what skills, etc.), so that the HEC could help universities remedy some of the deficiencies immediately. According to him, this issue will require a sustained attention to enhancement of quality. Based on the report, HEC would submit detailed recommendations to the government, including the strengthening of institutional, financial, and capacity building aspects.
It is hoped that the committee, after in-depth study and comprehensive deliberations, would come up with concrete recommendations for improving the quality of higher education in Pakistan as national and international assessments and reviews have already highlighted flaws in higher education system of Pakistan.
A close coordination is required among federal HEC and provincial HECs/governments as well. There is also need to review the performance and working of Quality Assurance Division & Quality Assurance Agency within HEC, two key divisions responsible for ensuring quality assurance and Quality Enhancement Cells established in the universities. An independent third party assessment as already suggested by the concerned stakeholders, could be greatly helpful in this regard.
The education intuitions also need to pay special attention towards improving critical thinking and analytical approach discoursing culture of notes and cramming. At the same time, remedial courses addressing the poor writing skills and low level of general knowledge should be offered for the students. The education intuitions and parents should encourage reading habits.
The specific needs of the students should be identified at the time of admission and short remedial courses should be offered accordingly. I have personally experienced, before joining Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad in 1998, 6 months English language course, helped me a lot not only during my university but also throughout my career.
It is also right time to review the decision of opening new university campuses without ensuring certain standards and qualified faculty as during last decade, it has become common practice by the political leadership to announce establishment of new universities/campuses at political gatherings to gain popular support.
The situation also requires assessment over attraction of civil services for talented university graduates and working of FPSC. The Senate Special Committee to examine the Annual Report of Federal Public Service Commission for 2015, after through deliberations, observed that the Commission is in need of a proper study as to what should be the composition of the board of the commission, what went wrong where in the mechanism of taking the Competitive Examination, how other countries process the selection of civil servants. The Committee also asked the Commission and Established Division to calculate information about how have the toppers of the competitive examinations served in the last twenty years.
Without bringing about meaningful structural reforms in higher education sector and civil services, the desired results could not be achieved.
Muhammad Murtaza Noor is associated with the development and education sector for more than 18 years. He is currently working as National Coordinator with Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences Pakistan, an autonomous largest alliance of Pakistani universities.
The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.