In Defense of HEC's Key Role in Pakistan's Higher Education
By Riaz Haq
Those who cite the 1986 World Bank study to argue that the social rates of return for higher education are 13 percent lower than return on basic education must remember the following: Hundreds of millions of lives in Asia were saved as a result of the success of the Green Revolution that was enabled by a combination of US aid, and the capacity of the recipient nations to absorb it by virtue of the availability of local college graduates in agriculture and engineering.
The Green Revolution succeeded in South Asia and failed in Africa mainly because of the differences in domestic technical and institutional capacity to absorb foreign aid and technical know-how in the two regions. Simply put, Africa did not have the basic critical mass of people who had the benefit of higher education and training in agriculture and irrigation that was available in India and Pakistan in the 1960s.
Going forward, the importance of tertiary education will only grow bigger in developing nations. The physical capital that was essential for development in the 20th century will no longer be sufficient in the 21st century. Instead, the human intellectual capital will determine success or failure of nations in this century. In addition to basic health care, the key input for the development of human capital is quality education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.
The key role of higher education is to enable basic institutional capacity building for economic, political and social development. The college and university graduates with arts, business, science or technology degrees help promote economy, democracy, social mobility, entrepreneurship, and intellectual and industrial competitiveness of their entire nation.
Pakistan's Higher Education Commission has led a successful transformation of higher education in Pakistan since 2002 through reforms initiated by Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman, appointed by President Musharraf.
In a paper titled "Higher Education Transformation in Pakistan: Political & Economic Instability", Fred M. Hayward, an independent higher education consultant, assessed the success of the HEC-led reforms as follows:
"By 2008, as a result of its policy and financial successes, most universities had become strong proponents of the Higher Education Commission. For the first time in decades university budgets were at reasonable levels. Quality had increased significantly, and several institutions were on their way to becoming world-class institutions. Most universities had signed onto the tenure-track system. The first master’s and PhD students were returning from their studies to good facilities and substantial research support. Many expatriate Pakistanis returned from abroad with access to competitive salaries. About 95 percent of people sent abroad for training returned, an unusually high result for a developing country in response to improved salaries and working conditions at universities as well as bonding and strict follow-up by the commission, Fulbright, and others. Student enrollment increases brought the total enrollment of college age students to 3.9 percent—well on the way to the target of 5 percent by 2010.
"Research publications more than doubled between 2004 and 2006. Especially important was the emphasis on quality in all areas including recruitment, PhD training, tenure, publications—all requiring external examiners. While the percentage of PhD faculty has slipped slightly from 29 to 22 percent, largely because rising enrollments have taken place faster than increases in PhD training with higher standards, the extensive faculty development programs of the commission will soon result in the return of sufficient numbers of PhDs to more than reverse that trend. During this time the student/faculty ratio has improved from 1:21 to 1:19, and a number of universities have focused on upgrading the quality of their teaching programs. By 2008, a broad transformation of higher education had taken place."
Over 5,000 scholars have participated in PhD programs in Pakistan. Thousands of students and faculty have been awarded HEC scholarships to study abroad. The HEC has instituted major upgrades for laboratories and information and communications technology, rehabilitation of facilities, expansion of research support, and development of one of the best digital libraries in the region. A quality assurance and accreditation process has also been established.
Unfortunately, the leadership in Pakistan in recent years has demonstrated its lack of appreciation of the critical importance of education in the South Asian nation.
Earlier this year, a Pakistani government commission on education found that public funding for education has been cut from 2.5% of GDP in 2005 to just 1.5% - less than the annual subsidy given to the PIA, the national airline that continues to sustain huge losses.
The commission reported that 25 million children in Pakistan do not attend school, a right guaranteed in the country's constitution, and three million children will never in their lives attend a lesson, according to the BBC.
Now there is an attempt to dismantle the HEC in the name of provincial autonomy under the recently approved 18th Amendment of the Constitution. By all indications, this attack on the HEC appears to be politically motivated to punish the HEC for its role in exposing fraudulent degrees of many leading politicians in the country.
More immediately, about $550 million in approved foreign grants and loans are on hold because of HEC's uncertain future.
What is at stake here is not just the future of the current students on HEC scholarships, but also the entire nation's future prospects as the world rapidly moves toward knowledge-based economy. The Pakistani government must acknowledge the potentially serious harm its actions are going to inflict on the nation and reverse course immediately.