There is no denying the fact that higher education is closely linked with the economic development and prosperity of the nation. In today’s world of globalisation and knowledge economy, institutions of higher education not only have the responsibility of generating new knowledge but equipping the new generation with advanced knowledge, competence and skills required for leadership positions in various social sectors. That is why the demand for higher education in various parts of the world has increased during the last one or two decades- Pakistan being no exception to that.

The process of expansion of higher education in Pakistan started in the early 2000s and as a consequence of the initiatives taken by the World Bank and UNESCO. UNESCO and the World Bank’s efforts paved the way for the constitution of the Task Force on Higher Education in 1997 which released its’ report “Higher Education in Developing Countries: Perils and Promise,“ in 2000. This report not only triggered the establishment of similar task forces in Pakistan and declared its’ vision of higher education in Pakistan in the following words.

“Transformation of our institutions of higher education into world class seats of learning, equipped to foster high quality education, scholarship and research, to produce enlightened citizens with strong moral and ethical values that build a tolerant and pluralistic society rooted in the culture of Pakistan” (Government of Pakistan 2002).

Recommendations of the Task Force on Higher Education in Pakistan paved the way for the establishment of Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002.

The HEC made strenuous efforts and was able to achieve expansion in the number of institutions and the rate of enrolment in higher education institutions in the country. Consequently, Pakistan has witnessed an exponential growth in the enrolment of the higher education sector during the last one decade or so. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2012-13 (Government of Pakistan 2013), the number of higher education institutions in the country increased from 54 in 1999 to 139 in 2012. An accompanying increase in the rate of enrolment has been witnessed during the same period. This enrolment increased from 114,010 in 1999 to 1,602,477 in 2012-13. There has been a 157 % increase in the number of universities and about 1300 % increase in their enrolment from 1999-2000 to 2012-13.

This substantial amplification in the higher education sector during the last one decade or so has been made possible because of financial allocation to higher education sector, particularly the HEC. It is heartening to note that highest rate of funding earmarked for the HEC has been during the current government of Premier Nawaz Sharif. But the question is whether this funding has resulted in the qualitative improvement of higher education.

The quantitative expansion of higher education in the country has raised some questions regarding its quality and completion rate. Many of the students who enrol themselves at the higher education level fail to complete the degree and those who succeed, lack the competence and skills aimed at by a particular degree programme. Resultantly, the graduates of higher education lack the ability and skill needed to carry out the task for which they are hired. This phenomenon has a very high social cost. Higher education institutions in the country will have to meet international standards and produce graduates equipped with 21st century skills and who can compete internationally.

Academia is of the view that despite the fact that financial allocation by the HEC to public sector universities has been phenomenal and quality assurance policies in place, the universities in both public and private sectors have not implemented measures to safeguard the quality of higher education. Three indicators can be used to refer to the quality. Firstly, recent results of competitive examinations held by the Federal Public Service Commission and annual reports prepared by the FPSC and provincial public service commissions speaks volumes about the quality of higher education. Only 2.09 percent candidates were able to succeed in a recent competitive examination which reflects upon the acquisition of knowledge, analytical skills and the ability to synthesise their answers in well articulated and argumentative manners.

Secondly, the ranking of the universities by the HEC itself in 2010 and recently in 2013, reveal a dismal picture. Some of the universities could not publish a single piece of research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This clearly indicates that a lot needs to be done in terms of promoting the culture of research and scholarship in the country.

The third indicator is the international ranking of Pakistani universities. In the 2012 issue of the top 300 Asian Universities released by QS, six Pakistani universities, three from the public sector and three from the private sector were mentioned. It is encouraging to note that in the 2013 issue, seven Pakistani universities were included, five from public sector and two from the private sector. However, in the top 700 World University rankings, only four Pakistani universities were included both in the 2012 and 2013 issues. Out of these four, two were public and two were private sector universities. But it is disheartening to note that all four universities could not retain their ranking of 2012 in 2013.

While there are many aspects where Pakistani universities need to improve their performance, research output is the one which needs immediate and urgent attention. All universities, with assistance from the HEC, need to adopt an effective mechanism and instruments for monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching and learning and developing a culture of research.

 The writer is former Professor and Dean, Faculty of Education, University of the Punjab, Lahore.