Nature Reviews Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment

Posted on September 3, 2009
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Education, Science and Technology
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Adil Najam

The latest issue of Nature (Volume 461 Number 7260, September 3, 2009) carries an article as well as an editorial on Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform experiment and on the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Since I am myself one of the co-authors I should not add too much more commentary to what we have already written in our Nature article. But some minimal contextual information may be worthwhile.

The topic of higher education reform, of course, has been a subject of intense debate in Pakistan and has been closely followed internationally because of the sweeping scale of the reform experiment in Pakistan. For this article the authors - Dr. Athar Osama (a scholar of science policy in developing countries and a Visiting Fellow at the Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, and someone who has written occasionally for ATP), Prof. Adil Najam (myself, the Director of the Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future), Dr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha (former President of the Aga Khan University and former Minister of Education, Science and Technology), Prof. Syed Zulfiqar Gilani (former Vice Chancellor, University of Peshawar) and Dr. Christopher King (editor of ScienceWatch) – reviewed the activities and impacts of the reform experiment to date.

We essentially come to the conclusion that the results have been mixed legacy and:

Although it is too early to judge the outcome of the experiment, it is already clear that some initiatives were more successful than others. Highs include more research papers, more PhDs and greater visibility for Pakistani research. The lows include an absence of external peer evaluation and of rigorous impact metrics. At times the speed and scale of reform outpaced the ability of Pakistan’s universities to adapt. And the top-down nature of the revamp also led to distress among faculty members. An important lesson for would-be reformers is that greater participation and openness may increase credibility and sustain support for reforms.

The paper outlines the problems that were originally identified by the Higher Education Task Force as the reasons why reform was needed:

Higher education in Pakistan has been a story of neglect for much of the country’s 62 years. Outside a few pockets of excellence, many of the institutions have been marked by mediocrity and a lack of motivation. Rather than contributing to the creation of new knowledge, they have been institutions of rote learning and feeder schools for foreign universities… Chronic underfunding of higher education was just one of the challenges… Other concerns were a lack of political will for meaningful reform, a lack of appreciation for the role education can play in development, ineffective governance systems, political interference in university administration, weak institutional leadership and, at the university level, a lack of performance culture and accountability.

Some more excerpts from our paper on how the reform has fared and what may be needed (full article may be read here, or in hard copy Nature (Volume 461 Number 7260, pp 38-39, September 3, 2009):

Human resources took the lion’s share of investment, and often received the strongest criticisms… For example, a foreign PhD fellowship programme has sponsored more than 2,000 scholars to study abroad. To date, the host countries seem to be happy with the quality of these students, although the programme’s impact will depend on Pakistan’s ability to attract back and reabsorb the scholars. By contrast, the domestic PhD fellowship programme has had a bumpier start. Here the goal was to create 5,000 new PhDs at local universities over 5 years – from a baseline of a few hundred PhDs in previous years. In this instance, the HEC’s critics argue that undue emphasis has been placed on quantity rather than quality. Two factors are at the root of the criticism – strong financial incentives for faculty members for each student that they advise, and low entry criteria for students…

Arguably, in this and in a few other cases, the HEC adopted a much more aggressive approach to reform than it – or Pakistan’s university system – could manage. In some instances, the HEC has been slow to realize the unintended consequences of its programmes. Excessive centralization of the reform effort – which the HEC justified as necessary to keep up momentum – also undermined university leadership and academic freedom…

The HEC seems to have changed the culture of Pakistani academia considerably over the past 5 years. The HEC claims to have caused a 400% increase in the number of papers published in international journals by Pakistani universities. It also takes credit for the appearance of three Pakistani universities among a popular top-600 chart of world universities, the ranking of Pakistan as a ‘rising star’ in five fields of science and engineering and external endorsements by evaluation teams from the British Council, the World Bank and USAID…

The strongest criticism of the reforms is that by vesting most powers within one body, the HEC became the initiator, implementer and evaluator, making accountability problematic or impossible. This created opposition from those who might have agreed with the reforms but were opposed to the implementation. Greater transparency and accountability would have diverted some of this criticism. More consultation and external oversight would have reduced the momentum for reform, but, in some cases, that may have been a good thing. In our view, reform should be evenly paced – even slowed down – to avoid any real or perceived compromise on quality…

The HEC has, over the past few years, made considerable progress. Its success, however, must not be measured by the number of grants made or PhDs awarded. Rather it should be judged on whether it is creating a culture of research – one driven not by financial incentives, but by a genuine desire to create new knowledge and to enable the broader society to reap the benefits. While that remains to be seen, Pakistan’s experience has useful lessons for other countries.

The editors of Nature consider the topic important enough to write an editorial around our article. They essentially highlight and reaffirm our recommendations, but are somewhat more accommodating than we were in our “qualified” assessment. Importantly, the Nature editors take from our paper the following conclusion:

Higher Education Commission, has operated with minimal oversight by academics, parliamentarians or anyone else. There has been some waste, although no one has yet accused the commission of egregious abuses of power. But it has exhibited blind spots that an outside influence might have corrected – notably a total lack of investment in the social sciences and policy research, disciplines that encourage the asking of questions that autocratic regimes frequently dislike answering.

This must change. Pakistan is no longer a dictatorship. The elected government, under President Asif Ali Zardari, has expressed cautious support for continuing Musharraf’s education reforms. It therefore has an opportunity to build on their successes and correct their shortcomings – starting with an independent review of the commission’s performance.

31 Comments on “Nature Reviews Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment”

  1. Gardezi says:
    September 4th, 2009 1:09 am

    First, its impressive that a journal as prestigious as Nature would give so much attention to Pakistan’s educational reforms. Congrats to you all on the article.

    From the portions quoted here it does look like a very balanced view. I have always been very sad at the general debate on this issue because it has tended to be very black and white. Either everything was excellent or totally bad. Your take of focussing on good as well as bad and seeing how to make the good better and the bad less bad is a much more useful approach.

  2. Haroon says:
    September 4th, 2009 2:07 am

    Yes, I think the results have been mixed. My feeling also is that the ones who were sent abroad were good and did go through the process of selection that was world class. But a lot of the Pakistan PHDs are not going to be up to standard and they are really ‘bharti kay log’ to fill up numbers.

    Overall, I think after 10 or 15 years we will really see teh real impact of this.

  3. noone says:
    September 4th, 2009 2:59 am

    The editorial of the Science Journal is right. When they say that policy and science based investment in higher education is lacking. The prime reason for this deficit is the composition of HEC. Most of the people in higher echelons of the HEC were either engineers or scientists, therefore they actually emphasized their fields more than others. Hopefully a multi-disciplinary HEC management would be more desirable to counter this deficit.

  4. Professor Pakistani says:
    September 4th, 2009 3:17 am

    We desperately needed some maturity and reasonableness into the debate over the HEC. In recent years it had really become a kushti match between two large egos – Atta ur Rahman vs. Pervez Hoodbhoy. I am sure both are good and smart people but but are also a little too full of themselves and the debate had become about them rather than about education.

    I hope that an article like this and someone of the calibre and skills of Dr. Adil Najam could be a first step towards bringing the discussion back to what matters, improving higher education in Pakistan rather than just feeding the egos of either Dr. Atta or Dr. Hoodbhoy!

  5. Sehar says:
    September 4th, 2009 6:39 am

    5 montsh back , Government stopped all HEC funds and also universities funds for Research,Labs ,Infrastructure etc.First a political woman of PPP was made its chairman and now SZABIST head .Until true academian will not chair HEC, things will not improve.

  6. Eidee Man says:
    September 4th, 2009 9:36 am

    Congratulations on the article.

    Frankly, the article does not really provide much in the way of specific insight; the fact that this experiment has been mismanaged is quite well-known.

    My personal opinion is that instead of reforming everything at once, the HEC should invest in smaller projects that can rigorously uphold a standard of excellence. For instance, what LUMS is doing with the SSE looks very promising and the faculty that they have hired seem top-notch. Borrowing some ideas from the Indian Institutes of Technology might is another possibility.

  7. Anwar says:
    September 4th, 2009 9:36 am

    I agree with the overall assessment by the authors. One of the major concern that I have is that HEC’s objectives are top heavy. The raw material for the universities comes from schools and therefore an aggressive investment (intellectual and financial) is needed in basic education sector as well.

  8. One Who Knows says:
    September 4th, 2009 12:27 pm

    I am sorry to say the HEC is all stuffed up with incompetent senior/junior officials, mostly promoted from clerical jobs, simply cant implement what would be recommended to them by any commission/committee/intellectauls as they cant even understand the English language properly.
    First fire them all,bring in educated stuff then think of getting anything done by HEC . Chamachagiree and rishwatkhoori is all common in this rotten commission.

  9. Rehan says:
    September 4th, 2009 12:35 pm

    First of all congratulations for having a landmark paper as this published in a journal like Nature. Aside from going to a library, is there a way to get a free copy for some stingy readers?

    The best long term investment Pakistan can do is to sponser any capable minded person for PhD’s in any field. I donot think Pakistan Government should worry about return of these PhD’s to Pakistan. A small percentage will come back if sufficient incentives and oppurtunies are provided within the country. For example a good research environment and a rewarding career in research and academia!

    It will probably be best if HEC focuses on a relative few research institution and encourage healthy competition among these, while providing oppurtunities and incentives to other institutions to grow to that elite level.

  10. Durrani says:
    September 4th, 2009 1:15 pm

    I just looked the full articles up via the university library system. First of all congrats, this is big to get such billing in a journal like Nature and then for them to write a whole editorial on your piece.

    On the editorial, however, I thought they were too apologetic for HEC as if they were trying to defend it. Your article is much more reasonable and balanced and look at what worked and did not but the editorial was kind of saying. “Give Atta a break.” Sounded a little PR to me frankly.

    But the article raises some very important issues, specially that the reform was pushed much harder than the system was able to accommodate. That is where things broke. Plus, I think you also point out that Atta ur Rahman became bigger than the reform and that also hurt things.

  11. J.S.G. says:
    September 4th, 2009 1:23 pm

    Very nice article and important to get this to leading science audience internationally.

    I do not agree with the person who says that we need academics running HEC. That is what the problem really was. Anyone who has actually done this knows that doing GOOD RESEASRCH is different from doing GOOD RESEARCH ADMINISTRATION. Now that Prof. Najam heads a research institute I guess he must also be finding that (I hope hee is one who is good at both, we know already he is a good researcher).

    Anyhow, the point is that the ideas are simple enough and we know them. The thing is implementation in a system when everyone has an incentive in making the system fail. That is what happened here. The teachers and universities did not want a merit based system and tehy conspired to make everything fail. On the other hand HEC was also too focused on numbers and quantities and overall metrics and not on creating the support needed for implementation.

    So what you really need is someone who IS a top world class researcher (Atta ur Rahman was) but who also understands policy implementation and knows how to create the support at implementation levels not just with the President (Atta ur Rahman did not). That is the type of person: good research + good manager, that is needed and that is where Atta ur Rahman failed on the second part.

  12. Uzma says:
    September 4th, 2009 5:28 pm

    Nice article. One that highlights the successes and also criticizes a little, putting the debate in balance. There must definitely be improvements needed as is the case with any initiative.

    It would be nicer if we could call it “higher education effort or initiative” instead of “experiment”. It would put such healthy criticism and suggestions in an even better light. It would make the impressions and suggestions long lasting in direction of betterment.

  13. Watan Aziz says:
    September 4th, 2009 6:11 pm

    Can anyone share why Chemistry lead pre-2002 by massive numbers and then continues to dominate post 2003? I am puzzled.

    Also, the Pakistan’s Academic Publishing Performance numbers, are these citations based on those published by Pakistanis in Pakistan or includes those abroad? Just for clarification, though it will still not change much.

    Sadly, no surprise to see almost no change in Education and a dismal increment in computer disciplines. These areas continue to be neglected, even after HEC; no wonder, no “LEC”.

  14. Nadeem Ahsan says:
    September 4th, 2009 9:13 pm

    I wonder why Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a strong critique of the HEC was not included as one of the authors of this article. Perhaps, he has been too critical in the past.

    He has written extensively on this subject.

  15. Nadeem Ahsan says:
    September 4th, 2009 9:17 pm

    This so called reform was a total disaster. Dr Hoodbhoy has been very critical of the waste and the useless PhDs who were manufactured by this program and like most other issues in Pakistan, this reform is now a thing of the past after Musharraf left the scene.

    This Nature article dances around the whole program and in the name of ‘balance’ only goes to deceive us and mislead the people of Pakistan.

  16. Riaz Haq says:
    September 4th, 2009 9:48 pm

    In his book “The Post-American World”, Zakaria argues that “many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork.” Zakaria says the key strength of the IIT graduates is the fact that they must pass “one of the world’s most ruthlessly competitive entrance exams. Three hundred thousand people take it, five thousand are admitted–an acceptance rate of 1.7% (compared with 9 to 10 percent for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton).”

    As a student of Karachi’s NED University of Engineering and Technology in 1970s, I had similar assessment of my alma mater (and other UETs) in Pakistan as Zakaria’s characterization of the IITs in India. NED Engineering College in 1970s was “decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork”. However, given the fairly strict merit-based admission process, I found myself mostly surrounded by some of the best, most competitive students who had graduated with flying colors from Karachi’s intermediate colleges and ranked very high on the Board of Education examination to make it into NED College. It was indeed the creme de la creme of Karachi’s youth who have later proved themselves by many accomplishments in various industries, including some of the leading-edge high-tech companies in America. Even in the 1970s, there were a small number of students admitted on non-merit-based special quotas. NED University today, however, appears to have significantly expanded such special, non-merit-based, quotas for entrance into the institution, an action that has probably affected its elite status, its rankings and the perceived quality of its graduates, while other, newer institutions of higher learning have surpassed it. Some of the special categories now include sons and daughters of employees, children of faculty and professional engineers and architects, special nominees from various ministries and an expanded quota for candidates from rural areas and the military.

    Please read more at:

  17. Riaz Haq says:
    September 4th, 2009 10:57 pm

    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. 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. 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, 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.

  18. Dr. Pervaiz Saleemi says:
    September 4th, 2009 11:48 pm

    Very nice. And also a good topic to discuss. hope we can get out of this cult of personality which Drs. Atta and Hoodbhoy seems to have gotten into by turning it into personal vendeta. This is sad because both are very accomplished scientists and I am convinced both want what is best for Pakistan’s educational future. They have different approaches and views on how to get there and that is OK like in al science different views will be posed and the better ones will win out.

    The point I take from this is simply that we need to look at what parts did not work and why and then focus on how to amend this. As Dr. Hoodbhoy has been saying and as this article also says the domestic PhD program has been full of very serious problems including incentives that led to bad behavior. The PhD program for sending people abroad has had better results and even Dr. Hoodbhoy does not criticise that. But i do worry whether those PhDs will return and if they do whether we will be able to reabsorb them, that will need a much better infrastructure in Pakistani universities and that infrastructure investment should be th priority now.

  19. September 5th, 2009 9:20 am

    See Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s letter to Nature (the editors there have so far declined to publish it, but he sent me a copy and gave me permission to publish it) about the paper here:

    I have invited Adil to write a response to Dr. Hoodbhoy.

  20. September 5th, 2009 12:09 pm

    A very informative speech by Prof. Salam on a related topic.

    This should give us a reason to continue HEC efforts to invest in research.

  21. Biologist says:
    September 5th, 2009 12:21 pm

    Very nice article. Specially because it resists looking at things in black and white. Either all is good or all is bad. I agree that the domestic PhD program has been wasteful and created negative energies. But the international PhD program has certainly been a great success and will have long impacts.

  22. Surriya Jabeen says:
    September 5th, 2009 6:01 pm

    Very nice work. We need to bring balance into this debate which had become ugly and very personal in recent past. There were a lot of big mistakes made and some of them need to be reversed. Specially the wasteful university building around the country.

  23. Nadeem Ahsan says:
    September 5th, 2009 8:46 pm

    Other than convince an unsuspecting western journalist/editor from Nature Magazine who does not have a clue about the state of education in Pakistan, this article has accomplished nothing. First of all, why would a reader of Nature care about Pakistan’s Higher education system?

    Does the Pakistan experiment serve as a case study for other countries? I don’t think so. If at all, there is a lesson, it is that money cannot buy education. Scholarship cannot be manufactured through buildings, libraries and unwanted spending on lab equipment.

    Those who claim that this was a success want to see goodness in everything.

  24. Daktar says:
    September 5th, 2009 9:54 pm

    Mr, Nadeem Ahsan, as I just commented on your similar comment on the new post on this subject with Dr. Hoodbhoy’s response, please see that here.

    Just to repeat, I have read the article and maybe you should too. THE ARTICLE DOES NOT SAY THAT THE REFORM WAS A SUCCESS. It says some parts were and some were not and then discusses both.

    For more details please read my comment on that other post. But lets at least keep this discussion to the real point rather than sophmoric mud-slinging.

  25. Ghazal says:
    September 6th, 2009 3:22 am

    A fine discussion indeed. I still believe that gov should focus more on elementary education than on the HE.

  26. Nadeem Ahsan says:
    September 6th, 2009 11:30 am


    If the article cannot take a stand or come to a reasonable conclusion about the success/failure of the program, what was its purpose? Why would other countries be interested in knowing more about Pakistan’s education system if it was not a success?

    By all accounts and from all of the writings of Dr. Hoodbhoy who has studied this program more closely than most others, it is clear that other than flushing millions of dollars down the drain, filling up the pockets of self serving bureaucrats and cronies in the HEC and widespread corruption, this program was an unmitigated disaster. Let’s call a spade a spade instead of spinning this whole disaster into some kind of a ‘neither here nor there’ kind of wishy washy assesment that does no good for anyone.

  27. Daktar says:
    September 6th, 2009 12:43 pm

    @ Nadeem Ahsan, there is little point in discussing with someone who just refuses to read what he is commenting on.

    They are NOT saying that its ‘neither here nor there’. They are saying, ‘some of it is good and some is not.’

    The problem is when you insist that either everything is good or everything is bad – black and white.

    A chemist studying water chemistry does not have to say that it is all hydrogen or all oxgyen. A good chemist says, well its this much hydrogen and this much oxygen. Similarly, a good policy analyst says, this part of policy worked good this part did not. Then you have something to build better future policy with.

  28. Javed Ali Qasmi says:
    September 7th, 2009 3:51 pm

    So, finally got to read the paper at my library. Congratulations. It is very good.

    I think the biggest problem was that the whole effort was too centered around one person, Atta ur Rahman and that is why it is withering away after him. For reform to work it has to have deeper roots.

  29. Kamran Arif says:
    September 9th, 2009 8:02 pm

    Good to see us thinking about serious issues like higher education and debating ideas rather than fretting over Meera’s weddings or not!

  30. Watan Aziz says:
    September 10th, 2009 6:30 pm

    Well, finally, the copy arrived.

    I wanted to see the article to see what else jumps out. But I still remain with my initial impression that the editorial board of Nature is very astute to hit it on the head with … a total lack of investment in the social sciences and policy research, disciplines that encourage the asking of questions that autocratic regimes frequently dislike answering.

    There is one accomplishment of HEC that will reap dividends many times over and was perhaps one for which the cost was the least. It is the digital library and access to knowledge far and wide. Every student in Pakistan should get access to this library. Nay, every person in Pakistan. Broadband access to the library. Free! Wifi access points can do this and more, block by block, basti by basti.

    Let the freedom of ideas ring through the freedom of information.

    Perhaps a follow up article or if the authors can share their observations and research on the above two issues as the space is limited in these publications and one can only hit few points.

    Finally, ‘let the perfect be the enemy of the good’. HEC is not perfect. It is not managed by perfect people. Mistakes will be made. But mistakes in the name of education are good mistakes.

    An educated Pakistani, at any level, is a better Pakistani.

    Here I must mention, Pakistanis need to spend more time on doing original research on matters of faith. The educated need to take back the matters of ilm from the ignorant mullahs. I am afraid that the sexy disciplines of sciences are getting too much prominence.

    Pakistanis have paid a very heavy price for not questioning often.

    This is a weakness of Pakistan and other total control regimes. It is not the education but the nature of the culture that forces the answers. And then there is the culture of the personal faith of the experts. That too creates a tunnel vision. Not seeking answers from outside. This too needs to change.

    I am still in awe of the scope of ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ by the great Allama. If you read the thought and the logic of the thought and the breath of the references! I hold opinion that even today, no other author has put such diversity of thought in one coherent form. This kind of reach should be the necessary part of standard college education.

    Yet, those Pakistanis who have questioned often, they too have paid a very heavy price on ‘kyoun boltal hai?’ Pakistanis should come to the aid of those who question. Even if they do not agree with him or her. The right to ask question is more important than the question itself.

    (And then there is my lovely and sage wife, who keeps reminding me (and she patiently understands why I do not listen to her) that I waste my time over these things.)

    And too often, things get centered around individuals and not ideas. I am shocked to see posts that say Adil and Pervez are the only two people who can talk about Pakistani education. Dismayed. Not about their abilities, but that people think in these platitudes. Worse, if this is really true. Or even the partisan statements about Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman. The culture of personality. This should be rejected.

    No need to have ‘wawa clubs’. No need to have kool aid sippers show up to bash the other guy and squash any discussion. Then there is rampant censorship of all forms. Ahem.

    Someone mentioned roots. Yes, Pakistanis need to work on roots. Far and deep.

    But above all, critical thinking. Ask questions. Demand answers.

    A discussion of bad ideas is better than no discussion.

  31. Aliya says:
    September 13th, 2009 10:01 pm

    Adil Najam, you never fail to impress with the range of achievements and things you do. How can you find the time to do all of these things and so well!

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