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Higher Education Commission’s impact on research in Pakistan

The Higher Education Commission in Pakistan has recently been the focus of an article in Nature that analysed the structural changes made over the past 7 years, and the ramifications of these changes. The article even claimed that these changes can serve as a model for other developing countries to enhance the quality and quantity of their higher education research. You can read more about the article here.

This was followed by a fascinating debate between Dr.Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr.Atta-ur-Rahman who discussed these assertions. These are two icons of the research landscape in Pakistan, with affiliations to MIT and Cambridge (UK). This debate discusses fundamental options related to strategy, and I also added my thoughts in the comments. My comments are reproduced below, but they will make more sense once you read the original article and the two opposing views in the debates.

Both Dr.Rahman and Dr.Hoodboy have my deepest respect, and it is difficult to challenge the contributions that these sincere, hard-working individuals have made in our society. I appreciate the sincerity with which they have approached the problem of quality in the HE system in Pakistan, and the countless lives of budding academics whom they have influenced directly and indirectly.

The gist of Dr.Hoodboy’s critique is that we should not lose cognizance of the quality of the research, and the researchers and ensure that we track the magnitude of the research output accurately. He was very concerned with the issue of evaluation, which is an important aspect of ‘declaring success’.

Indeed, a recurring failing of the primary/secondary education in the public sector in Pakistan is that quality has been watered down so much that education may perhaps even be considered counter-productive (as it wastes time, does not build problem-solving skills, and saps the confidence of the students).

However, in my opinion Dr.Atta’s approach was a very healthy one. He introduced solid metrics into the HE process, and matched these to incentives. He also facilitated the provision of ‘essentials’ required to carry out research (i.e. funding, digital libraries, and changes in policies).

Even if these were not perfect (and nothing is perfect the first time around), they have made a difference. Obviously, there are still challenges. Even today, I hesitate to return to Pakistan to teach as I am afraid of being marooned outside the international research community; I recall sadly how often I’d get papers accepted (in international conferences) while working in Pakistan in partnership with enthusiastic, bright-eyed students, and be given authorization to ‘only register’, and not fly out and present the paper, and thus lose the chance to interact with my peers. How can we build enduring partnerships with peers in the international community, unless we can meet them at least once or twice a year? When I protested, I was told to get journal publications instead of conference presentation, which is not how most research works.

I also recall teaching 21 credits one semester, which does not leave sufficient time for research or even adequate student supervision/mentorship. In comparison, my advisor in Cambridge (UK) only taught 8 to 16 _hours_ a year, freeing his to focus more on research. He was (co)supervising 3 PhD students and another 4 MPhil students though. My university research partners here in Ottawa, Canada typically teach 6 credits a semester.

However, even though I was overworked, frequently admonished for initiatives (which occasionally tend to not work out as planned) and deluged in work that was not part of my core competency (interviewing janitors?! and investigating staff ethics cases), I had the honour of teaching over 300 students in my three years in Pakistan. I am delighted to say that a substantial proportion of these students have gone on to pursue higher education abroad, and I still collaborate with some in Pakistan, Europe, Japan/Korea and North America as part of my consultancy and budding startup.

Even more importantly, I had a chance to develop an excellent relationship with my mentor who had come to Pakistan for a year as part of the Foreign-Faculty programme run by the HEC. We both had an interest in artificial intelligence, and he encouraged me to apply to Cambridge (which I frankly did not think I could get into), and provided me a strong letter of recommendation. I also was one of the 20 individuals who was awarded the overseas PhD scholarship in 2004 from the HEC (which was either the 1st or 2nd years this was run). I decided to not take the scholarship, as I was not impressed with the thought of being on a 5 year bond, and I hope it benefited someone else. It was very difficult financially, but I managed to get through the programme by consulting on industrial project and due to the sacrifices made by my wife (who worked as a research associate in another department in Cambridge, even though we had a two year old child at home). However, in other circumstances the scholarship would have made all the difference, as funding is a necessary element for higher education enrollment.

As my teaching career in Pakistan was between 2001 and 2004, I had a chance to observe first-hand how the new policies effected the universities, and let me assure you that they did have a galvanizing effect on aligning interests towards research. I am sure that things have improved even further since then. However, I cannot comment further as I am currently outside the system, although I do encourage others to add their thoughts below.

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