Higher education enrolment and graduation rates have been continuously rising for the last 18 years. More than 200 universities and degree awarding institutions exist in Pakistan. Higher education sector is very diverse-ranging from large public sector universities to small private universities. Universities efforts over the last two decades have focused much more on increasing the number of graduates than on improving the education they impart to students. By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates and attainment levels, universities ignored that the learning of their graduates declined over the past two decades and this trend is likely to continue in the years to come. Some universities are making serious struggles and efforts to make up the declining standards and improve quality of teaching and research, many others seem content with their existing teaching and learning.  Nevertheless, the latter also recognise the existence of problems affecting the quality of higher education as a whole.

Higher Education Commission’s efforts for revamping the existing “Undergraduate Curriculum” for a well-rounded undergraduate education is appreciable. The revised “Undergraduate Education Policy 2020” is claimed to be the HEC’s flagship project for “Competencies Based Education.” HEC has advised all public and private sector universities/HEIs for immediate adoption through normal procedures but not later than end of January 2021. We hope that the new curriculum will improve students’ critical thinking, personal growth and job skills. We are optimistic that the new curriculum may enable students to understand their individual and collective life and succeed in their future life. We should be optimistic about the intended results of this flagship project but need to be careful in not exaggerating its output. We should be clear that the revamped undergraduate curriculum is not a panacea that will redress all problems affecting quality in higher education.  The declining standard of education is a complex and complicated problem and may not be redressed by revision of curriculum. Embedding quality in higher education demand all stakeholders (HEC, universities’ administration, teachers and students) to join hands and put our heads and resources together to achieve it. Besides adopting the revised curriculum, we need to focus on more fundamental issues and fix them for greater gain in the quality of higher education. 

Good schooling and college education is the prerequisite for quality higher education. When schools and colleges pass students from one grade to the next, whether or not they master the academic skills spelled out in the grade curriculum, students will come to universities poorly prepared for university education. There are many complaints about the students we enrol into universities. One of the main concerns and complaints is that the students that universities enrol are not prepared for university education. It is argued that the existing students aren’t ready to step up to higher education and learn independently. It was believed that students lack knowledge, social skills and attitude required for university education. They lack commitment and determination to work hard and cope with the requirement of their disciplines and degrees. They lack skills to manage their time and workload.  They have no thirst for knowledge and spend much less time on their studies than their predecessors did two decades ago. They don’t have after classes study schedule or library habits. Evidence suggests that they are learning less than their predecessors did 20 years ago. A common belief and discourse is that they apply to university to get degree and enjoy relaxed social life with no intention to broaden their knowledge and mental horizon. They come to universities with an obsession for higher grades without hard work. The dismaying slice of this cake is that universities not only enrol them but also retain them/graduate them to manage financial needs from students’ fee/tuition fee. To sustain and continue their graduation rates, universities have lowered their academic standards. This has led to an increase in the number of graduates who are functionally illiterates in their disciplines, general knowledge, civic responsibilities and job skills. Faculty, parents and employers complain that our graduates are deficient in basic skill such as writing, problem solving and critical thinking. It is important to stress that hard work, positive attitudes, social and technical skills (reading, writing, problem solving, and computing skills), commitment, determination, time management, good subject and general knowledge are qualities that are highly demanded in contemporary society. We should persistently remind students about their responsibilities. They need to understand the value of time and how can they invest in their studies for their successful future. Students should try to complete their assignments and academic commitments up to the entire satisfaction of their institutions and academic disciplines. They should allot sufficient time to fulfil their responsibilities outside classroom. Teachers and parents may sensitise students about the substance and quality of education they receive instead of stressing on them to bag high grades. 

Similarly, effective learning depends on quality teaching and good pedagogical practices. The quality of our graduates banks on quality teaching and positive learning environment. Universities need to put quality teaching on their agenda as a top priority. In order to enhance students’ learning, higher education institutions may revisit the existing pedagogical practices and processes. We have to revisit how we teach and how students learn. Every university may combine the two (top-down & bottom up) approaches to quality teaching or adopt one of the two as per its requirement. We should also revisit the value that we have associated with classroom teaching and research output. Under the prevailing policies and practices, faculty members are primarily rewarded for research output. Teaching is seen less rewarding. Regular faculty members, thus, spend the bigger slice of their time in research. This belittles classroom teaching. 

The erosion and decline of public support for higher education is another key area to be discussed and debated. Due to significant decline in state funding in the last three years, almost all public sector universities in the country are under pressure to increase enrolment at BS, MS and PhD levels to meet their financial needs. The expansion has resulted in a number of policy and practical challenges. Increasing enrolment compels universities to relax their admissions criteria. Many universities have increased the faculty teaching load without bothering about its impact on the quality of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, hiring visiting teachers is like hiring unskilled daily labour. Another key evil of engaging visiting teachers is the award of high grade to the majority students without judging students’ knowledge. Studies indicate that the increased dependency on visiting faculty is one of the key contributing factors of grade inflation. The voice that I am trying to raise here is that the universities should decide to appoint the visiting teachers who are the best in their respective fields, and who can really contribute to the intellectual growth and development of students. 

In summary, HEC, universities, students and parents should accept that the quality of higher education is declining day by day and must be a matter of national concern. Higher education expansion may not be celebrated until and unless we ensure quality in our higher education.