The future of higher education in Pakistan

A recent newspaper article calls for transforming Pakistan’s university system by turning universities into low-level community colleges that primarily focus on undergraduate teaching. It was insinuated that Higher Education Commission (HEC) previous reforms and initiatives to promote and support postgraduate research were not beneficial and failed to advance Pakistan’s economy. Although the HEC reforms and initiatives were highly lauded by international observers such as education experts from UN, USAID and World Bank, there has been a widespread public misconception that the only outcomes of the HEC programs were production of large numbers of PhDs and even higher numbers of ‘research’ papers. It has also been conjectured that the reforms-led high research outputs in Pakistan were useless since no profit-seeking businesses making use of these papers and patents. However, the centrality of research in the Western university system was linked to foundation of a solid undergraduate teaching programme.

Confining the intellectual life of Pakistan universities system to rote classroom activity would be a fatal flaw for our education system. Instead, our universities should celebrate a culture of research- a system in which research is uniformly expected, discussed, produced, and valued. Without a research component, a relevant and modern undergraduate curriculum does not exist in developed countries. Several studies have revealed that undergraduate research enhances students’ critical thinking skills and equips them with fundamentals and skills needed for success in their careers. It also helps them to discover their passion for research, and prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. Undergraduate research is an inquiry-based learning that allows students to apply their knowledge in an experience-​based learning environment.

No one doubts that a solid undergraduate programme is important towards a common goal of increasing scientific understanding. However, in practice, a cadre of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students runs the advanced research conducted in developed countries instead of undergraduate students. The USA, which is home to only 4.3% of the world’s population but houses 43 of the world’s top 100 universities, had more than 40000 postdocs in 2013. Many of the postdocs and graduate students are non-US citizens, who completed their undergraduate training in developing countries around the world. Certainly, human resource is instrumental in the advancement of R&D. However, availability of adequate infrastructure and research funds are also key ingredients for R&D and innovation. Pakistan’s R&D expenditure is more than 216 times less than USA, 73 times less than Japan, 22 times less than India, and about 7 times less than Turkey.

It is a reality that investment in Research and Development (R&D) is not like an ordinary investment. Studies have shown that majority of the research projects, especially basic research, do not produce immediately commercialized results. A study has revealed that there are over 2.2 million papers in science and engineering alone are published each year! Will all of the papers published translate into significant industrial usefulness and utility? The progress of translation of research into practice in the developing countries is plagued mainly by low absorptive capacity of the local industry, non-existent or deficient research commercialization mechanisms and lack of knowledge transfer through foreign direct investment. Furthermore, academic research does not specifically focus on support of domestic industry. Instead, academic-based research generally aligns with answering the larger scientific questions of interest to the international audiences of the scientific community. The reality is that the majority of academic research is fundamental research where the impacts are measured by publications and citations. The promotion of quantitative performance indicators in academic institutions leads to some of academician’s work serves the purpose of chasing indicators – a dynamic that encourages utilitarian approach to select agendas or topics favored by the indicator system rather than responding to the market.

Given the fact that R&D needs time to show its full potential and usefulness, the long term promotion of R&D and innovation for the socio-economic development in the developing world is on the rise. The development agenda of the European Union “Europe 2020 Strategy” clearly marked R&D and innovation as key interventions to create jobs through increased industrial competitiveness and to provide solutions to their socioeconomic challenges. The emergence of “tiger economies” of South Korea, Taiwan, and China was rooted in technology-based catch-up, which illustrates that investments in science and technology are crucial ingredients to come out from the “middle income trap”. The enormous success of Finland in 1990s has been partly linked to clear concentration on increasing R&D expenditures and supporting knowledge society initiatives. More than 50% India’s population is engaged with the profession of agriculture, which contributes to less than 10% to national economy. Merely 15% of her population is equipped with tertiary education that contributes to more than 50% of country’s economy.

Bridging the gap between the academia and industry is important for the translation of research into practical applications. We need to make curriculum more relevant by including 10 to 15% of courses that are industry specific and solicit feedback from the stakeholders about the status of the academic programs. We should enable our faculty to invite an industry expert in his/her domain to co-teach the curriculum, who may bring case studies, technology road maps, and state of-the-art practices and technologies into the classroom. The industrial exposure of our students needs enhancing through industrial internships, industrial projects, and counselling activities with industry. We should also facilitate industry experts to sit in our advisory bodies.

Increasing R&D expenditure and the development of an ecosystem that contains an adequate infrastructure, employing and retaining of highly qualified faculty and motivation of students is the way forward. The need for continued support in Pakistan for higher education and research can be illustrated by the concept of the knowledge triangle – to disseminate knowledge, generate new knowledge and apply that knowledge in partnership with industry. Without supporting the generation of new knowledge and disseminating that knowledge, the knowledge-triangle is simply incomplete.

The write is a Professor of Chemistry at KFUPM, Saudi Arabia

Confining the intellectual life of Pakistan universities system to rote classroom activity would be a fatal flaw for our education system.

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