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Transparency that matters

At present there are around 200 universities / Higher Education Institutes (HEI) and many more affiliated colleges operating in Pakistan. Of these 200 universities, anywhere from one to two dozen make appearances in world university rankings of various prominence, primarily the US News, Times Higher Education and QS world university rankings. Only a handful make consistent appearances across all of them. All these rankings combine different metrics into a single number.

Over the last few years, from time to time, we have been told about several metrics and how our universities perform on them – for example: how many papers were published, how many grants were won, etc. Unfortunately, many of these metrics have no direct relation to what matters most to (undergraduate) students and their families.

The quality of education these HEIs deliver varies greatly. Universities at the top regularly see a good number of their graduates accepted to Ivy League schools and universities of similar stature or are well enough trained to find themselves working for the world’s most sought-after employers immediately or shortly after graduation.

On the low end of the spectrum are degree mills that graduate students without employable skills so that not even local employers will hire them, at least not on their own merit. There is a wide disparity in the hireability, career prospects and earnings potential of graduates from different HEIs.

Surprisingly, future career prospects and earnings are not necessarily correlated with the cost of education. While some of Pakistan’s best universities are private (LUMS, FAST, GIKI, AKU), several public universities (NUST, UET Lahore, UET Taxila, IBA-Karachi, most public medical colleges) outperform their much more costly private-sector counterparts. Even among private universities some operate not-for-profit while others operate for-profit, which ultimately comes out of student tuition fee bills.

The total cost of a four/five-year undergraduate education at universities can vary substantially from as little as around Rs120,000 (University of Punjab, 2021), to around Rs400,000 (UET-Lahore, 2021) up to as much as around Rs14,500,000 (Aga Khan University, 2021). Most other universities fall somewhere in between – some can be justified, while others cannot. Tuition fee price tags at the high end of the scale are approaching those of domestic students at US public universities, while Pakistan’s per capita GDP remains less than one-fiftieth of the US. If American higher education has an affordability crisis, it can be argued that we have an even bigger crisis here at home.

Put aside for a minute the time-cost of acquiring a university education (usually four years). The financial cost of a degree programme to students can be substantial enough to drive families into debt. If that education proves insufficient to train students for gainful employment, the years of unemployment post-graduation and resulting frustration compounds that problem. How are prospective students (and their families) to decide which programmes are worth their investment and which are not?

Metrics that could be key to make such a decision, and that are often provided by universities abroad, include things like graduation rate (fraction of incoming students that survive the programme and graduate), employment rate six-months after graduation (usually in the form of a percentage), average starting salary, average salary two years after graduation, etc. These are the kinds of metrics that matter to most students, but instead (with only a few exceptions) most universities offer only tall claims in slickly produced videos and brochures with little to no data to back them up.

Such data is key to families performing their own cost-benefit analysis according to their own unique circumstances and resources, to judge whether that debt burden is justified by the likely benefits of graduating from a particular degree programme. However, such data remains elusive, leaving families to base their decision on anecdotal evidence from their immediate social circles or, worse yet, exaggerated claims made by institutions themselves.

For-profit private institutions have an incentive to take liberties in making claims about their graduates’ employability and post-graduation career success. The result is that too often students pay significant sums in terms of tuition fees with a reasonable expectation of recouping the cost of their education in a few years only to discover after graduation, when they try to enter the job market, that they have not developed any employable skills.

At present, universities are neither incentivised nor required to collect and publish such basic data, which is not difficult to acquire. For reference, a medium-sized for-profit private university in Lahore has been giving its alumni phone calls on their birthdays every year, even 15 years after they graduated. Such outreach is remarkable, and if it can keep that up for 15 years, it must be capable of staying in touch with recent graduates and tracking their employment circumstances for one or two years.

Unfortunately, the university data that is often the focus of attention relates to research activities (papers published, patents granted, research grants, etc) that may be useful for other purposes, but that is of little relevance to most people’s needs. This lack of information means students are often flying blind with expectations of post-graduation life that are not in-line with reality.

This is not a novel problem the world has never faced. A few years ago there was the launch of the common data set (CDS) initiative for American universities. Participation in the CDS initiative is voluntary and asks universities to annually report detailed statistics on a standardized form that runs up to 45 pages. However, the information was not collected in the form of a database but just posted by each university on its website.

In 2015, former US president Obama’s Department of Education took the next logical step and launched ‘College Scorecard’ (https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/), a website that puts key statistics that students and families are most interested in one place, in a format that is easy to search and filter. It provides institutional information that remains constant (or changes very little) over the years, like the type (public, not-for-profit private, for-profit private), location (city, sub-urban, town, rural) and size (small, medium, large), mission and religious affiliation.

However, College Scorecard also provides key dynamic statistics that are crucial in helping potential applicants decide whether they want to apply – graduation rate, average annual cost, acceptance rate, admissions test scores, median salary two years after graduation and what level of financial aid students can expect to receive. These are the factors of immediate concern to prospective undergraduate students.

We have an opportunity here to improve the tertiary education experience by developing an indigenous adaptation of College Scorecard for Pakistani universities. Bringing greater transparency to empower citizens to make informed decisions aligns with the government’s priorities. In years past, when the HEC requested universities for data to publish its own ranking of universities, many smaller for-profit private universities were resistant and unresponsive.

Timely annual data reports could be made a precondition for universities’ continued good standing with the HEC. Universities that still refuse to disclose statistics should be published as such, which should serve as a big red flag to applicants.

In the first iteration, universities can be required to self-report data, the HEC can publish it and perhaps cross-check with its own and other secondary sources, such as labor market surveys. And the good news is that some of the building blocks for such an initiative are already available within the HEC in the form of its Higher Education Data Repository (HEDR) and Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS). This can be the kind of low-cost / high-impact programme that governments search for that can bring accountability and cost rationalization to the higher education sector, particularly the for-profit segment, by improving transparency.

If a prospective student still wants to base their application decisions on extra-curriculars and student life experience they are of course free to do so, but I suspect a majority will appreciate the opportunity to base this decision on a cost-benefit analysis while factoring in their personal circumstances. If these statistics are published regularly, we can hope that pressure from customers will compel universities to start competing on them.

Postscript: the past few days have seen a concerted propaganda campaign against me. I would like to use this space to refute all the allegations that have been piled on me based on a short video clip that is doing the rounds and which has been taken out of context. I am an academic who has written extensively on matters related to education, and believe in the tenets of our religion and firmly believe in the finality of Prophethood (pbuh). My remarks have been deliberately misconstrued just to target me.

Title : Transparency that matters
Author : The News
Type : News
Role Performer : Corporate autor
Subject : University education
Publisher : The News
Publication Place : Islamabad
Date : 2021-09-19
Language : English