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An environment for education

Pakistan’s youth bulge could be considered its biggest strength. However, we are far from figuring out how to educate them. Only one in 12 can go for higher education due to limited resources, making it one of the lowest accessibilities in the world. What’s more, we suffer from both crippling quantity and quality when it comes to higher education.

The QS World University Rankings, an annual listing of the world’s top universities, has no Pakistani university in the top 400 of its recently released global list for 2013. NUST is the only Pakistani university that lists in the top 500. However, for the Asian region, and only due to the strategic reforms that took place at the HEC under my chairmanship, seven Pakistani universities were able to make it for the first time to the top 250.

Pakistan has one of the poorest gross enrolment ratios (GER) for higher education in the world – a meagre eight percent, compared to Bangladesh at 12 percent, India at 18 percent, Malaysia at 36 percent and Turkey at 40 percent. Although the HEC has set a target of 15 percent by 2020, that target is unlikely to be met due to lack of funds and faculty, unless a major compromise on quality is made.

Increased accessibility to higher education is a real challenge. The total population between the ages of 17 and 23 in Pakistan is 24 million. Out of this currently only two million have access to higher education, which includes on-campus, degree colleges, private, distance and virtual students. If Pakistan is to meet its 15 percent GER target by 2020, about 4.15 million students would need to be enrolled in the higher education system.

This means we need to double the number of our universities from 150 to over 300, and degree colleges from 2,000 to over 4,000 by the year 2020. This translates to establishing one new university, with complete infrastructure, faculty and funding every two weeks, and establishing one new college a day, for the next seven years!

The problem is that as increasing numbers graduate high school, which is the focus of all provincial governments under free and compulsory education up to the matriculation level, we just don’t have the capacity to absorb them into higher education. Post 18th Amendment, the provincial governments, under political pressures of local MPs, have been passing haphazard bills establishing universities without realising where the long-term funding, or quality faculty, will come from. This trend will lead to further deterioration in the quality of higher education unless minimum standards are met.

What about faculty? We currently have over 32,000 faculty at our public and private universities, out of which only 7,600 have PhDs – about 23 percent. Even maintaining this ratio of PhDs till 2020 would mean recruiting a thousand PhDs a year every year for the next seven years. However, the HEC’s goal is to increase the ratio of PhD faculty to 40 percent, as per developing world standards, by 2020. This means recruiting over 2,500 PhDs per year, or 50 PhDs per week, every week, for the next seven years, numbers that are practically impossible.

Under the funding cuts, the HEC is now only able to send about 400 scholars a year for their PhDs abroad and support another 600 locally. Our universities can support a maximum of 1000 PhDs per year, the quality of which is highly questionable for some universities. With the depreciating rupee, we expect that even fewer scholars will be able to pursue their PhDs abroad, with more graduating from local universities, and from the third world, making the quality of future faculty and PhD supervisors questionable.

Today, the private sector accounts for less than 25 percent of enrolment in higher education. However, barring a few institutions – like LUMS, AKU, GIK, and a few others – the quality of graduates of most private universities is questionable. Over the past decades, to cater to the huge supply-demand gap, people who do not know enough about education, and have no aspirations to be in education – mostly business people from industries such as real estate who know how to get large pieces of land allotted or have surplus cash – started to establish universities.

Since most of them were not academically oriented people, and didn’t understand education, even if they were well-intentioned they didn’t know how to create an environment for education. They saw themselves making profits through providing a service, and the service was providing somebody a degree which could get them a job, no matter how underpaid or irrelevant it was.

Thanks to the demand fuelled by the rise of the service industry, this model worked well enough to attract large numbers of students, mostly in business and IT schools, since the public sector could not cater to the needs. This led to a mushrooming of many mediocre private universities that provided an opportunity to students to graduate, but there was little incentive for these universities to improve. The result is further deterioration in the quality of education. The irony is that well-qualified and competent people and educationists who are not part of the ‘system’ find it difficult to establish private universities.

Finally there are funding issues. State education throughout the world is subsidised, whether in the US, UK, Australia or India. At the current rate of funding (Rs39 billion for recurring expenditures) with approximately half a million students in our public universities, the average subsidy to each student is about Rs 70,000 for recurring. There are development costs in addition for expansion, infrastructure, and equipment, amounting to Rs18.5 billion in 2013-14.

With the projected growth to 15 percent GER by 2020, the budget for the HEC at the same constant subsidy (assuming no inflation and no depreciation of currency) would need to increase to over Rs120 billion! Assuming inflation is maintained at single digits, this translates to over Rs240 billion funding for higher education by 2020. Where in the world would the government find an additional Rs180 billion to fund higher education in 2020? I foresee a continued crisis in funding for higher education every year in the foreseeable future unless there is improvement in governance at universities and the economy of the country.

Then there is the regular sermonising of fund raising. Universities are not corporations, driven by expansion and profits. Also universities in the west are facing their own financial crisis. In short, there are no shortcuts to resolving the accessibility challenges to our higher education. The burgeoning youth population, the genie, is out of the bottle, and we need to cultivate it before it devours us!

The author is former chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

Email: jlaghari@gmail.com

Dr. Javaid Laghari, "An environment for education," The News. 2013-11-29.
Keywords: Social sciences , Youth-Pakistan , International education , Higher education , Educational development , Education , Pakistan , Malaysia , Australia , India , Turkey , NUST , HEC , Ger , PhD , AKU , GIK