Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pakistan's reform experiments in higher ed

Sidebar: I'm not sure how many of these links to Nature.com will work for you without subscription; the last two will definitely work from this story at ScieDev.Net -- go to the bottom of that story for the links.

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The Nature opinion piece (by Athar Osama, Adil Najam, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Syed Zulfiqar Gilani & Christopher King) is an eye-opener! It describes (and to some extent, evaluates) the massive efforts by Pakistan since 2002: enormous increase in funding, lots of students sent abroad for doctoral degrees, increase in the number of PhDs from Pakistan's universities, etc.

These efforts have been spearheaded by the Higher Education Commission (which replaced that country's UGC). The current head of HEC, Atta ur Rahman, has a response highlighting what he thinks are the major achievements:

... Because there were not enough suitable PhD supervisors in the universities, we sent some 3,800 students abroad, mainly to the United States and Europe, to study for a PhD, at a total cost of about US$1 billion. [...]

There followed a huge increase in international scientific research publications, from 600 or so in 2001 to more than 4,200 in 2008. About 50 new universities and degree-awarding institutes were established during this period, and enrolment in higher education almost tripled to about 400,000 by the end of 2008, having been just 135,000 in 2003.

A digital library was established to provide free access to 25,000 international journals and 45,000 textbooks for all public-sector university students. In the 2008 Times Higher Education rankings, four Pakistani universities are among the top 600 in the world — an unattainable position before 2003.

In another response to that opinion piece, Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, is blunt in calling HEC's efforts 'a failed experiment':

the former government wasted enormous sums of money on prestige mega-projects. Nine new universities were abandoned after partial construction because of a lack of trained faculty, and expensive imported scientific equipment remains under-utilized many years later. The claimed 400% increase in publications was a result of salary bonuses awarded to professors who published in international journals, largely irrespective of substance and quality. These payments fostered a plagiarism culture that still goes unpunished.

The authors draw attention to a large increase in "relative impact" in some disciplines, based on citation of papers published in 2003–07. But were self-citations (a common ploy) eliminated from this count? I used an option available from Thomson Scientific and found the opposite result after eliminating self-citations.

The authors also praise the Higher Education Commission for increasing university professors' salaries. But this has created social disparities — a full professor now earns 20–30 times more than a school teacher. Professors, bent on removing barriers to their promotions and incomes, take on very large numbers of PhD students. To ensure that these students get their degrees, many professors seek the elimination of international testing, hitherto used as a metric for gauging student performance.

Pakistan's failed experiment provides a counter-example to the conventional wisdom that money is the most crucial element in the reform process. ...


  1. Anonymous said...

    Well, well ... Two totally opposite views. The truth, no doubt lies somewhere in between.

  2. Anonymous said...

    India is eager to emulate Pak. No body
    talks of scientific contributions any longer but about scientific output, as if
    doing research in S&T is producing steel. Even in the elite CFTIs of India (ie IIT/IISc/IIM/IISER/NITIE) the system is sliding towards talking about quantity of papers, imnpact factor, h,g and other alphanumerical indices. But not one promotion/selection/recruitment/review/evaluation committee asks: What problems have you been working on? Why are they hard problems/How are they useful in Indian context? What unique progress have you made ? and then ask for publication record to back up the tall claims...
    It may be mentioned that many databases agree that among the Nobel awardees this year the Indian origin chemist has an pre-Nobel h-index of 12 and
    a physics awardee has that of 9.
    Now look at this faculty recruitment pitch on the IIT Delhi webpage for its Bio-science school:
    Obviously the Indian origin Chemistry Nobel Laureate for 2009 would not make it to the Professor rank since he does not have the required h-index.
    Now look at the profile of the co-ordinator of this bioscience school:
    ...I do not think progress in chemistry/biochemistry/bio or chemo informatics in India or in this world would suffer in any way if all his papers were retracted tomorrow and if he was retired from the CFTI system with a golden handshake at the same time,
    The fallacy of all these output measurements is in assuming that science and technology is research countable when it actually is not!

  3. Anonymous said...

    Prev post : Good one ..... did you check if the other faculty satisfy the criterion ? Exceptions do not make a rule, however your point is well taken.