At the time of independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited the British education system with a single public sector higher education institute (HEI), the University of Punjab. During the past seventy years, a significant increase has been observed both in the public and private sector HEIs, and current estimates stand around 114 public, and 78 private sector, higher education commission (HEC) recognized universities and degree awarding institutions. Globally, HEIs significantly contribute towards national prosperity and progress and are considered as the hub of the “knowledge economy”. Top three advanced technology and leading economies USA, Japan, and Germany have the highest number of their universities in global ranking strongly suggesting the potential role of HEIs towards economic prosperity and better quality of life.

In considering the higher education scenario of Pakistan, over the past 70 years, there has been an increase in the number of universities within the country a positive sign; however, the contribution of HEIs in economic prosperity and resolving national issues is still debatable. This aspect of universities’ output coined as “knowledge economy” has never been seriously considered, however, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan in his maiden and inaugural speeches committed to improving education and health besides several other reforms. As a proponent of the knowledge economy having served at senior academic leadership positions in Pakistan, I can unequivocally assert that if the quality of education from primary to tertiary level is streamlined and aligned with contemporary pedagogies, it will automatically fulfill dreams of the current government – economically stable and socially responsible Naya Pakistan. Pessimistic critics in the past have been asserting that if HEIs, have not contributed significantly over the past seven decades in Pakistan, how, this can happen within a limited time span?

A most appropriate reply to this critical question is, much needed academic excellence initiative. We all know that “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step” and this step should have been taken earlier. As an educationist and academic leader having the teaching and research experience in several parts of the world, it makes me pessimistic to observe that in this age of information communication technology not even a single public sector university in the country has an appropriate fully functional “Learning Management System” and “University Governance” aligning with global needs. The pundit of Pakistani academia might consider it harsh; however, a scientific study regarding this aspect will add to their disappointment. Another relevant question is why highly competent Vice Chancellors/Rectors and their teams have never thought about this aspect in the past. The underlying issue for non-implementation of such measures in the past is the sustainability of leadership and policy matters. Every top academic leader has a limited tenure usually four years and is bound to follow certain statutory approvals for any new initiative that under certain circumstances take more than the tenure of the incumbent. Furthermore, a general trend among newly incoming HEIs academic leadership is to pay relatively lesser attention to the ongoing projects instead initiate a new one. The academicians across the country and expatriates are hoping that the Prime Minister of Pakistan having a Chancellorship experience of a developed nation university will consider this matter. Moreover, the incoming Chancellor/Governor of the highly populated province – Punjab is a firm advocate of technology-oriented education. For a nation like Pakistan, there sounds a unique nexus in the top-tier leadership and the excellent opportunity for “Knowledge Economy” to be seized on also. However, the possibility is through quick changes in the statutory requirements approvals for new initiatives. Federal and the provincial HECs can play a very constructive role in this regard.

For the implementation of necessary educational reforms/statutory changes aligning with modern progressive universities contributing towards “knowledge economy” as well as to shine out in the QS global ranking criteria, firstly, we must look at our current academic assets and then devise policies bringing a substantial boost in the capacity and capability of intellectual factories (universities). According to QS Global Ranking 2019, Pakistan has only seven universities in the top 1000 list and among these Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS) at position 397 leading, though first time recognized by the QS Global Ranking, whereas the University of Punjab is in the list of 801-1000 at the bottom. Among these seven, one is the private sector university the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Overall, if we look at the Muslim world higher education institutes, the University of Malaya in Malaysia is the top-ranked university at position 87.

It is pertinent to mention here that QS global ranking is based on six matrices including academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty and student ratio. All these criteria sound very familiar to every academician including students. Poorly performing universities have a problem with either one or more than one ranking relevant characteristics of universities. Among six QS matrices, academic reputation contributes 40% that is linked with a sophisticated teaching methodology having a state-of-the-art learning management system. The federal HEC should evaluate the existing LMS, i.e., “Campus Management Solution” that never brought the expected outcomes. Among the Muslim world, the Malaysian experience of developing indigenous LMS and university governance has brought significant changes reflected in the form of the highest number of Malaysia universities in QS Global Ranking. For Pakistani federal and provincial HECs it is mandatory to evaluate the current learning practices and instead of bringing costly subscription-based learning, management system should develop a highly sustainable indigenous system. Two best avenues that can potentially put the Pakistani universities on the passage to excellence are either to borrow and implement the LMS from the Virtual University of Pakistan in all public sector universities of Pakistan. This might need minor tweaking to make it useful for universities having non-virtual setups. Other option is a careful study of the Malaysian HEIs and bring the expertise from this friendly country. Both these possibilities are economical having an active element of sustainability that can put complying universities on the passage to getting better global recognition besides serving the country through knowledge economy component. Excellence in academic reputation though contributes at the levels of 40% in the QS ranking; however, it is tied up with all other evaluation matrices used in QS World University Ranking. In conclusion, the first step is to bring academic excellence in Pakistani universities and rest will follow automatically bringing Pakistani universities as a hub of the knowledge economy and will acquire prominent status in the global ranking.

The writer is currently serving in Malaysia. He is the founding chairperson of Inter University Consortium for the Promotion of Social Sciences and served as Vice Chancellor of three universities in Southern Punjab.