Dr. Amir Hamza Bangash
The Times Higher Education’s (THE) new World Universities Rankings (WUR) are public and a debate of 11 Pakistani varsities among top 1000 universities in the world has revived again.
Comparing the former three years rankings of the same agency, some Pakistani varsities have slipped from top 500 to being in top 1000 while no university could make it to the top 500 as before. No matter how promising and encouraging the rankings may appear, a deeper analysis reveals the paradoxical status of the Pakistani universities. In the world universities rankings conducted by any agency, two parameters are most important and carry the most weightage: research quality and the quality of the graduates produced. In the following lines, we will look into both of these parameters in Pakistani context.
The THE’s website claims that it ranks the universities based on many factors including teaching excellence; research excellence in terms of citation impact; research reputation, income, and productivity; international outlook and industry’s income. All these yardsticks make it important to follow the ranking of these and other different universities across the globe. There is still a problem. The universities are ranked by the international agencies like THE based on applications and data received from the universities, without validating and verifying the provided data in most cases. In other words, these 11 universities applied for the rankings and provided data which has not been authenticated by a reliable third party.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) ranks Pakistani universities’ Offices of Research Innovation & Commercialisation (ORICs) on the basis of four broader parameters—Work Environment and Human Resource, Research Support, Capacity Building, and Commercialisation of Research. It is interesting to note that in HEC’s last ORIC Scorecards Validation Report (https://hec.gov.pk/english/services/universities/ORICs/Pages/Downloads.aspx), a university which could not make it to the competing 69 universities in Pakistan, is ranked in the top 1000 THE universities of the world. More universities ranked by HEC in category Y and Z as “Below Average” and “Poor Performers” have also made it to the world 1000 top universities.
The recent rankings of universities have taken aback many as they do not match the ground realities of the quality of general education provided to the students in Pakistan, including the higher education! An uneven equation has been observed between the service providers (universities) and recipients (students). The situation on ground in Pakistan support the claim that students’ level has not moved upward whereas the universities have jumped up to the world’s top 1000. Now, there seems a big issue! In any developed country, when a university improves its ranking—the reflection is apparent in their students. In Pakistan, there is a disconnect. It appears a one-way street for us where the beneficiaries are only the top executives in terms of increasing their prospects for future recommendations to high seats, at the cost of the students.
In the context of general education, there can be no better case study to judge the performance of our university graduates, than seeing the results of Central Superior Services (CSS) Exam. The reports of the Federal Public Service Commission show that the passing percentage gradually declined from 12% to less than 2% in the last exam where only 376 candidates out of 18,553 passed the written exam. It casts a doubt on the competence of these graduates—but equally on the teaching excellence of these high ranked universities—besides other parameters of their rankings. One ponders, why these 11 top ranked universities in Pakistan are unable to jointly produce at least 1100 graduates, who could qualify CSS written exam. It is worthy to mention that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s four universities have made it to the world top 1000 universities, but unfortunately less than 1% of its graduates qualified the last written part of the CSS exam!
The research students produced by these universities are no different than the other graduates! Unlike these rankings, it is hard to see the reflection of research excellence in most of the students – despite the alleged competence level of the teachers projected in the rankings. It is painful to write that the research culture, in Pakistan, has been greatly compromised! We are not seeing neither the quality of research teaching nor quality of production in most of the Pakistani universities. Thus, it has resulted in the level of their students going down too. Recently, the HEC in its 49th meeting of the International Research Support Initiative Program (IRSIP) “showed severe reservations on the quality of research synopsis, research attitude of [Scholars]” and decided to write down to the vice chancellors “to look into the quality of research, research topic and board of advance studies approval process” due to embarrassment it causes us globally.
However, we cannot give a clean chit to HEC in this whole dilemma as they reduced the publication culture to a number game for personal promotions. It provoked university teachers and their students to engage in dodgy practices to ensure more publications. On the top, it helped many pseudo researchers to run different ‘underground’ research journals, approved by HEC, to establish a business model for fast-track publication. The story of other research journals, run by different institutes/ universities, and their tactics of publishing articles is another unending painful saga.
Like the typical HEC policy of if we can’t do it with publications, lets have more publications; if we failed to achieve with the US-based ‘Taught’ model, lets make it ‘Taught-only’ model. The HEC decided to further compromise on research culture by introducing MS (course-based) program, last year, in different universities. The underlying notion is the poor quality of students entering universities, which has also prompted the HEC to launch an Aptitude Test for students intake into BS Programs in the universities. Since we are here, why not a standardized test like the international GRE be mandatory for the teachers to know where they stand.
We should be bold enough to admit that ‘Taught’ model of research—laid down by US—for pursuing higher degree in academic has badly failed us in Pakistan. Instead of helping students, it has resulted in the disconnection of students’ learning and institutional efforts to empower students. The coursework has remained a mundane, tiring, and fruitless process of educating students to have a strong footing in research. We thought that GRE and GAT could result in giving us the best students in research, but we were proved wrong by our students. We received many such students who were not aware of the basic demand and even utility of this degree. Thus, it became a fashion than a rich culture to seek research in different Pakistani universities.
To connect the dots and to establish a true research and academic culture, the universities need to take a break from the ‘Taught’ model and introduce themselves to the ‘Classic’ model—practiced in UK. Let’s abolish the fruitless coursework and replace it with some core foundation courses—mostly related to the methodology, research integrity and thesis writing. Let’s replace the GRE/ GAT tests with English, Urdu, or other regional language tests in which the candidates want to pursue the research. This would become a meaningful exercise than asking students to study and be mentally prepared for five questions (‘Mundarjazel’ Culture) than introducing them to the real research exercises.
The HEC should also abolish the number game of publications for promotion of university faculty and should replace it with few quality publications together with other parameters of quality teaching. They can motivate the researchers/ faculty to publish books—from world renowned publishers—than producing papers in the ‘underground’ journals. Such initiatives should be taken to connect our research back to the industry/ market—than shelves. The institutional research should guide the market and fulfill its needs too. Also, the government should link its major decisions to the research. Thus, not only the researchers or research culture, but indeed the whole country will progress.
Although one cannot expect the international ranking agencies to verify and validate the data shared by the Pakistani institutions, through independent sources, one can expect that Pakistani universities submit the same data annually to HEC where HEC, after validating the data, issues a ranking of the Pakistani universities. Otherwise, this whole exercise would remain a laughingstock, as it is!
The writer is a PhD in Journalism Studies from the University of Sheffield, UK. He currently teaches at the University of Peshawar. He tweets @AmirHamzaBangas