After the announcement of Asian University Rankings 2016 respectively by Times Higher Education, QS Quacquarelli Symonds and QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings 2016, there has been a debate in the media and the academia regarding improving Pakistani higher education sector and learning from others experiences in this regard.

According to these two global rankings during the year 2016, none of the Pakistani universities could make a place among top 100 Asian universities and no Pakistani university could get 50% percentage score among the top 350 Asian universities. Pakistan lags behind as compared to other Asian countries. Among the 179 public and private sector universities in Pakistan only two got ranked among the top 200 Asian universities i.e Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad (QAU) and the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) as compared to 16 from India, 55 from China, 4 from Iran, 11 from Turkey, 06 from Israel, 3 from Saudia Arabia, 4 from Malaysia, 24 from Taiwan and 6 from Hong Kong. Neighboring India has become the strongest South Asian nation in the region with effective representation of 8 higher education institutes in the top 100 and 16 overall in comparison to Pakistan and Bangladesh with just three institutions, two from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh, with none among top one hundred.

As per QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings 2016, Pakistani higher education system ranked at the bottom among 50 countries, with a score of 9.2 when compared with other nations like China 83.5, South Korea 80.1, Singapore 62.3, India 60.9, Chile 46.7 and Saudi Arabia 36.7.

For Pakistan it is timely to learn from experiences to cope with the situation of higher education in the country. According to Mr. Jamil Salmi, former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education program, there is still enough room for improvement for the institutions in Pakistan. Ismail Badat, the British Council’s South Asia regional manager for higher education, emphasized need to “depoliticise the sector while raising standards of provision and quality assurance mechanisms. In 2013, China produced 71,003 documents with international collaborations, compared to India with 17,484 and Pakistan with 4,278”.

As a federal country having central and provincial governments, Pakistan also needs to learn from other federations’ experiences. As per the QS ranking 2016, among the top five countries with strongest higher education systems in the world, four countries are federations with the effective role of federating units in higher education sector. According to study titled “Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations” conducted by the Forum of Federation, a Canada-based institute, in most of the federal countries (10 out of 12), primary responsibility for governing, funding of public sector HEIs and approval of new academic programs lie with federating units.

In Pakistan, only 17% of universities are federally charted universities while the majority of the universities, 83% (149 out of 179) are charted by provincial governments. The universities established through provincial authorities are governed by the provincial governments. Realising their responsibilities in a post-18th amendment scenario, the provincial governments should allocate 25% of total the education budget to the higher education sector in order to meet growing needs. The first and foremost requirement is to follow transparent and merit based mechanisms for the appointment of university heads through independent search committee comprising of reputed academicians. The role of the provincial governments should be facilitative and supportive towards universities through autonomous bodies led by higher education experts. The autonomy of universities needs to be protected and respected. The amendments in respective universities’ acts should be brought in consultation with relevant stakeholders. On the pattern of Punjab government, remaining provincial governments should also prepare roadmaps for strengthening higher education and mid-term development frameworks (MTDFs). A transparent institutional performance evaluation system by the autonomous provincial entities can definably improve the access, quality and relevance of the research at provincial level. The presence of 164 unrecognised higher education institutes (HEIs) as compared to 179 recognised universities is another challenge for the federal and provincial governments. This issue is serious in nature and demands an effective strategy instead of leaving the Pakistani youth at the mercy of unrecognized HEIs providing low quality education. As per United Kingdom higher education model which is ranked as 2nd strongest higher education system, there is need to separate the functions of funding, quality assurance and university ranking in Pakistan.

To bring excellence in higher education sector, there are continuous efforts across Asia aimed at building world-class universities including new schemes concentrating government funding support to develop a few selected universities to compete globally. For instance, China has undertaken Project 985 that aims to transform China’s most elite universities i.e Peking University and Tsinghua University into “super-elite” world-class institutions. In Japan, the country’s Global 30 scheme features a competitive funding allocation method devised to transform a few major Japanese universities into world-class institutions. South Korea has initiated Brain Korea 21 program with the goal of developing home-grown academic talent. Taiwan has launched the Five-Year, NT$5 billion excellence initiative to promote academic excellence in the universities.

Learning from international best practices/experiences and effective inter-provincial experience sharing mechanism within the country can also be greatly helpful in promoting higher education in Pakistan.