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.

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31 responses to “Nature Reviews Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment”

  1. Watan Aziz says:

    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.

  2. Kamran Arif says:

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

  3. Javed Ali Qasmi says:

    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.

  4. Daktar says:

    @ 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.

  5. Nadeem Ahsan says:


    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.

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