Since the removal of Dr Tariq Banuri as Chairman, Higher Education Commission (HEC) a debate has started whether his policies were right or his predecessors’ most importantly Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, currently the chairman of the PM’s Taskforce on Science and Technology, as well as of the taskforce on technology driven knowledge economy. 

Dr Banuri considered Dr Atta’s ideas outdated and made efforts to shift policy focus away from them.

On the other hand Dr Atta being close to Prime Minister played his part to manipulate things in his favour during Dr Banuri’s term leading to a fiasco at HEC. In order to understand this issue brief description of both the periods including major initiatives, favourable circumstances, criticism etc. may be considered. Since the establishment of HEC under Dr Atta-ur-Rahman’s major initiatives were launched including Faculty Development programmes, Foreign PhD and Post Doc scholarships, conferences, research grants specially NRPU, Thematic Research Grants, Foreign Faculty Programmes etc.

However, the focus had been on science disciplines leaving much less space for liberal arts and social sciences. Abundant funding by the government, no previous benchmark, enabling environment (no threat in the form of any alternative leader as in the case of Dr Tariq Banuri), catch up effect i.e. effect of initial conditions on subsequent growth etc. facilitated HEC to implement these projects quite easily. These policies continued more or less same till the appointment of Dr Banuri.

However, Dr Banuri after his appointment took steps to shift focus from science to liberal arts/ social sciences and changed many initiatives of his predecessors.  The Associate Degree programme was initially launched in urgency and it was just the change of nomenclature, nothing more than that. Resultantly many issues were faced and almost after one year consultative process was started with universities and AD program was formally launched.

However, some implementation issues still need consideration to avoid failure of this policy like the colleges in which AD programme is going to be implemented lack basic facilities of infrastructure and face acute shortage of faculty.  However, much more work is still to be done e.g. provision of 38 credit hours (necessary requirement courses) material as promised by HEC, clarity in admission process and bridging policy at Universities for students of affiliated colleges after completion of AD programme etc.  It was also observed in this case that for the first time HEC tried to impose a policy on universities instead of keeping it as a guiding principle as done in past.

Additionally the way efforts were made for introduction and implementation of revised PhD policy it seemed that HEC had pressure to show progress. While revising the minimum requirement for admission to a PhD programme to BS (or equivalent) degree it has not been noted that BS programmes being offered by universities currently lack rigour required for a PhD degree.

Further, it has been left to the universities either to keep BS as requirement for admission or it to raise it causing non uniformity among various universities offering PhD programmes. As per revised policy it shall generally not be a requirement for admission to a PhD programme that the applicant shall have completed a prior degree in the same discipline.  Of course it seems good to accommodate students from other disciplines as per international practices but the dynamics of Pakistan’s higher education sector and labour market are very different which should have been kept in view before launching such kind of liberal policies.

The evaluation criteria for PhD thesis has been revised and now PhD dissertation must be evaluated by two external experts (instead of three previously), who may be either (i) Pakistan-based Distinguished National Professors, Meritorious Professors, or Tenure Track Professors, or (ii) PhD experts from academically advanced countries provided, however, that if the PhD candidate publishes his or her dissertation research in a peer reviewed journal that is classified by the HEC as category X or above, the PhD dissertation will only require evaluation by one external expert.

It has not been clarified if both experts belong to foreign countries then how viva voice can be conducted as previously viva was conducted by local/national expert. It is pertinent to mention that the Distinguished National Professors, Meritorious Professors or Tenure Track Professors which are eligible to be the reviewers are very limited in numbers in Pakistani Universities

In many departments it is not feasible to launch PhD degree whereas these offer MS/MPhil or equivalent programmes.  It is not clear that by reducing the admission requirement to BS degree what will be the fate of MS/MPhil or equivalent programmes in such universities as applicants having BS will prefer enrolling directly in PhD instead of MS/MPhil. During Dr Banuri’s tenure various previous programmes including travel grants, NRPU, thematic research grants and foreign PhD/Post Doc scholarships etc were either halted or curtailed in terms of funding. The policies were good but the manner in which they were introduced and implemented raised many questions. These issues could have been settled if all stakeholders were involved in a consultative process.  In order to avoid further complications in policy making and implementation focus should be put on consistency of policies as in education sector policies take time to show results.

Secondly, there should be a balanced approach towards science, liberal arts/social sciences as all of these areas are necessary for development of Pakistan. Apart from these promising students at undergraduate level should be offered scholarships to pursue studies in top universities of the world. Undergraduate students spend much more time in foreign institutions and develop many links there and sometimes secure jobs in academia or top research organizations of foreign countries creating a lobby of academicians abroad favouring future students and researchers. In case these students are bound to return to country after completion of studies they should serve as faculty at P-15 universities.

Dr Masood Sarwar Awan

The writer is Director of Academics and Professor and Chair of Economics at University of Sargodha.