Dr Ata-ur-Rehman defends Pakistan’s higher education reforms

November 19, 2009 at 8:16 pm (Education, Pakistan)


By Riaz Haq

Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy is a vocal critic of Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform initiated by Dr. Ata ur Rahman, adviser to President Musharraf, in 2002. This reform resulted in over fivefold increase in public funding for universities, with a special emphasis on science, technology and engineering. The reform supported initiatives such as a free national digital library and high-speed Internet access for universities as well as new scholarships enabling more than 2,000 students to study abroad for PhDs — with incentives to return to Pakistan afterward. The years of reform have coincided with increases in the number of Pakistani authors publishing in research journals, especially in mathematics and engineering, as well as boosting the impact of their research outside Pakistan.

Reacting to the recent publication of a report on reform by Dr. Athar Osama, Prof. Adil Najam, Dr. Shams Kassim-Lakha and Dr. Christopher King published in Nature Magazine, Dr. Hoodbhoy wrote a letter to the editors of the magazine that was highly critical of the HEC under Dr. Rahman. Here is Dr. Rahman’s response to Dr. Hoodbhoy’s latest criticism:

There are four aspects of the comments of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy that need to be considered:

1. Firstly, Dr. Hoodbhoy himself admits that there has been a huge increase in international publications at QAU after HEC came into existence when he mentions the number of international publications in the two time periods. Strangely, he picks a six year period, 1998-2003, and then compares it with the subsequent 4.5 years (?) , 2004 to mid 2008, (the correspondence occurred in August 2008, so he could not possibly have had access to the figures for the entire year) I can only assume that he has mentioned 2003 by mistake in the second “5 year” period as there is no reason to include the publications of the year 2003 in both time periods, which he has done. It is clearly unfair to take two time periods of different durations and compare them.

2. In the first 6 year period (1998-2003), Dr. Hoodbhoy admits that there were only 631 research publications from QAU, but in the second 4.5 year period these had risen to 1482 research publications, a tripling of publications on average per year, even by his own estimates.
3. As the HEC programs began in 2003 and their real impact occurred 2-3 years later, a year-wise comparison is far more relevant than an average over a 5 year period as the dramatic change that has occurred gets partly masked when a 5 or 6 year average is taken, though it is still very visible. Dr. Hoodbhoy ignores the figures that Dr. S.T.K. Naim had worked out that in the year 2004, there were only 84 research publications from QAU (an average of only 7 publications per month), but by 2008 they had increased many fold.
4. The citations argument used by Dr. Hoodbhoy is invalid as citations increase with the passage of time. Dr. Hoodbhoy, therefore, wrongly compares the citations of papers of an earlier period with those of a later period. To clarify this issue further, if two papers of equal quality and in a similar field are published, say in 1998 and 2007, and the citations of both are counted in 2008, then the paper which was published in 1998 will have accumulated more citations by 2008 because of the much longer 10 year time period, than the paper published in 2007, as that would have had only one year for the citations to accumulate. Dr. Hoodbhoy is therefore comparing apples with oranges when he tries to compare citations of papers published in an earlier period with a later time period. In order to fairly compare citations, the same duration of time period must be taken. Thus if one takes 1998 publications and counts the citations till 2008, then one will need to take the 2008 publications and count their citations till the year 2018, before one can compare the figures for the citations of the two sets fairly.

The undeniable fact is that the total number of research publications from universities in Pakistan was only about 600 per year till 2001 but then started rising rapidly, and by the year 2008 it had increased to over 4,300! Brazil achieved such an increase over a 35 year period between 1960 to 1995, which Pakistan achieved in only 6 years. After my appointment in March 2000 as the Federal Minister for Science and Technology in Pakistan, I convinced the government to enhance the budget for science and technology in Pakistan by 6000% between July 2000 to October 2002. After my appointment as Chairman, Higher Education Commission (Federal Minister) the budget for higher education was similarly increased by 2400% during 2003 to 2008. Major achievements during these periods were:

1. Establishing 51 new Universities and awarding institutions during 2002-2008,
2. Tripling university enrollment (which had reached only 135,000 from 1947 to 2003) to about 400,000 in 2008,
3. Establishing a powerful Digital Library which provides free nation-wide access to every student in every public sector university to 45,000 textbooks/research monographs from 220 international publishers as well as to 25,000 international research journals,
4. Establishing video-conferencing facilities in most public sector universities that allow lectures to be delivered live and interactively to students in Pakistan from technologically advanced countries
5. Enhancing salaries of academics so that salaries of University Professors were increased to a level about five times the salaries of Federal Ministers, with a corresponding reduction in tax from 35% to only 5%, in order to attract the brightest young men and women into academia,
6. Promoting research through a massive research grant program which resulted in a 600% increase in ISI abstracted publications from about 600 per year in 2001 to 4300 research publications in 2008, accompanied by about 1000% increase in international citations in the same period,
7. Placing a satellite in space (Paksat-1) which is now used for distance learning by the Virtual University,
8. Establishing video-conferencing facilities in most public sector universities and initiating a lectureship program, allowing live interactive lectures to be delivered from technologically advanced countries,
9. Providing free access to scientists/engineers anywhere in the country to sophisticated instruments installed in any institute in Pakistan.

The Bottom Line: In the final analysis, it is not what I or Dr. Hoodbhoy think about the developments, but what is the opinion of neutral international experts who have carried out detailed year-long reviews of the developments during the period that I was heading the Higher Education Commission. A few extracts are given below:

1. Prof. Fred Hayward (independent international educational consultant from USA) carried out a detailed analysis of the developments and published an article entitled “Higher Education Transformation in Pakistan: Political & Economic Instability,” Date: Number 54, winter 2009 Source: International Higher Education Quarterly. I quote: “The news about Pakistan over the last few years has been dominated by reports of political turmoil, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, economic decline, and the Afghan War. What has been missed is the phenomenal transformation in higher education over the last six years, which represents a critical development for Pakistan and a potential engine for growth and national recovery.”


2. Report of US-AID about HEC states that “We are very impressed with the breadth, scope, and depth of the reforms implemented by the HEC since 2002. No other developing country we know has made such spectacular progress.”


3. World Bank Report is very complimentary of many excellent programs introduced.


4. British Council: The report states: “I have worked in many countries in South America, the Middle East, North Africa, and in Russia and India, over the last six years. None in my view, with the exception of India, has the potential of Pakistan for the UK university sector, largely because of the dynamic, strategic leadership of the Chairman of HEC”.


5. Nature: Several articles and editorials have appeared in the world’s leading science journal “Nature” (the most recent in the issue published on 3rd September 2009) in which the very significant progress made by Pakistan in the higher education sector has been applauded and the need for the new government to built on the solid foundation laid has been stressed.


6. Science Watch (Thomson Reuters) has ranked Pakistan as a rising star in five disciplines, more than in any other country of the world.

Riaz Haq’s Note: For the first time in the nation’s history, President Musharraf’s education adviser Dr. Ata ur Rahman succeeded in getting tremendous focus and major funding increases for higher education in Pakistan. According to Sciencewatch, which tracks trends and performance in basic research, citations of Pakistani publications are rising sharply in multiple fields, including computer science, engineering, mathematics, material science and plant and animal sciences. The number of papers published by Pakistani scientists reached 4300 in 2007 (For comparison purposes, India-based authors published 27000 papers in 2007, according to Science Watch). Over two dozen Pakistani scientists are actively working on the Large Hadron Collider; the grandest experiment in the history of Physics. Pakistan now ranks among the top outsourcing destinations, based on its growing talent pool of college graduates. According to Pakistan Software Export Board, Pakistani IT industry has grown at 40% CAGR during the 2001-2007, and it is estimated at $2.8 billion as of last year, with about half of it coming from exports. As evident from the overall results, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of universities and highly-educated faculty and university graduates in Pakistan. There have also been some instances of abuse of incentives, opportunities and resources provided to the academics in good faith. The quality of some of the institutions of higher learning can also be enhanced significantly, with some revisions in the incentive systems.

Admission meritocracy, faculty competence and inspirational leadership in education are important, but there is no real substitute for higher spending on higher education to achieve better results. In fact, it should be seen as an investment in the future of the people rather than just another expense.

Of the top ten universities in the world published by Times of London, six are in the United States. The US continues to lead the world in scientific and technological research and development. Looking at the industries of the future such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, green technologies, the US continues to enjoy a huge lead over Europe and Asia. The reason for US supremacy in higher education is partly explained by how much it spends on it. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform, “The Future of European Universities” points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan.

In spite of the new education policy promising to more than double education spending from about 3% to 7% of GDP, uncertainty remains about the budgetary situation. Continuing political instability and the deteriorating security situation have created a loss of confidence in government and new questions about the future of higher education. These factors threaten to reverse the phenomenal gains of the last few years, and undermine the prospects for national development toward a knowledge economy. In addition, there is growing uncertainty about the future of the Higher Education Commission, including its administrative and financial autonomy. Thus, one of the few hopeful signs of progress in Pakistan appears to be in jeopardy. While there are many claimants on the national budget in this period of economic difficulty, the failure of higher education transformation would be a devastating reversal for Pakistan and make economic growth, social recovery, and political stability even more difficult than at the present time.

Let us hope that the recent appointment of Dr. Javaid R. Laghari as new Chairman of the HEC will help clarify the situation and restore confidence in the future of higher education in Pakistan.

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2 Comments

  1. abdul bari said,

    One of the significant benefits to distance education in a developing country context is that teachers can remain at their posts and interact with learners, family, and the community. They can apply what they are learning immediately to their situation and save the government money as teachers taking distance courses don’t need to be replaced as would be the situation if they attended regular face-to-face teacher training colleges.

  2. Anonymous said,

    urdu medium education in all level

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