As if the sorry state of affairs for higher education in Pakistan were not apparent, the Times Higher Education (Times HE) world university rankings for 2016 made it even more obvious that we are losing the race. There are no Pakistani universities in a list of 500 educational institutions across the world. The only two universities to even feature on the Times HE website were Quaid-e-Azam University, at a ranking of 501-600, and the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), ranked at an abysmal 601-800.

The Vice Chancellors (VC) of various universities, when confronted about this, conveniently rejected the parameters of the Times HE ranking system and claimed that it was biased. It is almost amusing to see the leaders of educational institutions blame the grading criteria instead of admitting the flaws that exist, especially since the marking system of many institutions is partially to blame for the low standard of education. As was diligently pointed out by many VCs, Pakistani universities will naturally struggle to move up in the rankings when judged on indicators such as the presence of international students. But they completely ignore that teaching quality, international outlook, research, citations and industry income generated are all key statistics that were being looked at when the rankings were being calculated. If universities cannot provide a space for students to obtain all of this, then the purpose of higher education is lost.

Apart from blowing holes in the Times HE ranking system, VCs pointed their collective finger at the government and blamed it for not focusing on the improvement of education as a whole. Indeed, issues with the quality of education being provided at local universities are largely due to governmental incompetence, but absolving the VCs and the administration of any blame would also be unjustified. It is absolutely obvious that nepotism and low funding has caused lots of problems for higher educational institutions, but is also fundamental to understand that lack of focus on research, failing to curb plagiarism and overall indifference towards ensuring that teachers are adequately qualified has led to the stagnation of universities in Pakistan.

Universities all over the world are at the centre of ground-breaking discoveries in all subjects. Pakistani institutions have not even caught up to the current developments elsewhere in many fields, and innovation remains a distant dream. Even if we accept the claims of VCs and consider the possibility of the rankings being biased and slanted against universities in Pakistan, 500 places on the ranking list means that there’s still lots to compete for.