Upset by drastic budget cuts imposed by the finance ministry, the vice-chancellors of 71 public sector universities are threatening to resign en-bloc. They rightly say that development projects are grounded, bills unpaid, and some buildings only half-constructed. Paying teacher salaries is also at risk. But a cash-strapped government retorts that its number-one priority is dealing with the flood devastation. It says it cannot afford the inflated budgets of previous years.
Of course, sooner or later a limited bailout and some compromises will be worked out. But one thing is certain – the party is now over. For years, money had rained down from the skies and been foolishly squandered. The Higher Education Commission's profligacy and abuse of resources meant that, floods or no floods, disaster was in the making. But it simply chose not to look at red flags along the way.
From splendid boom to painful bust: how to understand this? After 911, the world suddenly realized that something was dreadfully wrong with Pakistan. Foreign donor agencies and governments tripped over each other to offer aid for education. They feared that an uneducated and unskilled Pakistan could become an epicenter of terrorism. Their thinking went like this: more money, better universities, less terrorism.
A cash-carrying tsunami soon hit Pakistan's public universities. With Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman heading the HEC, the higher education budget thundered up 900 percent between 2002-2008. The world was awed; such budgetary explosions are as rare as supernova events. Universities doubled, then tripled in numbers. The number of registered PhD students at various universities, qualified or not, skyrocketed. Although students remained poor, teacher salaries went through the roof.
Today our universities have no money to pay these outrageous salaries. But surely this had to happen. On the HEC's insistence, tenured professors saw their salaries doubled, tripled, and sometimes quadrupled. A full "TTS" professor nowadays can make up to Rs 325,000 per month, about 30-35 times a schoolteacher's maximum salary. Many professors make at least half or two-thirds of this amount. But this TTS scheme failed to bring new and talented faculty from abroad, partly because of the security situation. International donors eventually wearied of funding a failing system, which subsequently plunged deep into the red.
Spending money became confused with progress. Hugely expensive scientific equipment was imported that, even years later, lies unused. Then, with only a cursory check of academic suitability, the HEC dispatched thousands of students overseas on full scholarships. Although failure was guaranteed, nine new Pak-European universities were announced and even partially built. But no European teachers turned up and plans were eventually scrapped. Almost no day went by without the announcement of some breathtaking new scheme. Some were plainly crackpot. But the former HEC chairman thought more was always better. He boasted that his organization had over 350 schemes in the pipeline, more than in the rest of the government.
The chickens have finally come in to roost. But one must ask: why did this boondoggle last so long? The answer lies in HEC's successful propaganda blitz that left gullible overseas institutions singing its praises. Nature, a prestigious publication, wrote that Pakistan's higher education had turned the corner. A World Bank report, issued by a team led by Benoît Millot, lavished breathless praise upon the HEC for having effected "quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector". Though embellished with beautiful graphics, the report was deficient in one key respect – it had zero data to back its claims of quality improvement. In effect these foreign institutions became accomplices to a grand heist of Pakistan's public money. Sadly, there is no one to take them to task.
Freely flowing money created a new dynamic. To benefit from many-fold increases in salaries for tenure-track positions, professors speedily set about removing all barriers for their promotions. They happily took on unprepared students for PhD research because each student brought more money into that professor's pocket. Thousands of meaningless academic papers were published in exchange for cash.
Today, the failure of the Musharraf-Rahman education "miracle" is evident from the ferocity with which most super-salaried professors and their PhD students are campaigning against international testing. Unable to meet even the minimal requirements of their disciplines, they demand unearned degrees saying that passing examinations and taking courses is unnecessary and an affront to their dignity. Protest demonstrations over the last few months succeeded in pushing back the earlier requirement of passing the international Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), as well as the requirement of taking and passing graduate level courses.
The house of straw has finally been blown away. So what needs to be done? Six decades of consistent failure in creating a viable higher education system should force us to break with the fiction that insufficient financial resources are the problem. Instead we must search for truer reasons. Governments have come and gone without setting Pakistan on the path towards betterment. To play the standard political blame game is futile.
In truth there is something that sets us apart from the developed world, and even from other developing countries which have good universities, like India. At the deepest level, the problem is our value system. This disallows for modern education and a modern mindset resting upon critical thinking. Questioning is bad, obedience is good. But for progress, the dead hand of tradition must be cast aside because closed minds cannot innovate, create art and literature, or do science. Modern education is all about individual liberty, willingness to accept change, intellectual honesty, and constructive rebellion.
On a more practical level, there is urgent need for rational academic and fiscal planning. Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher education (about 0.8 million) study in about 800 colleges. But the spending per college student is a mere one sixth of that for a university student. Public colleges are in desperate shape with dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and poor laboratory and library facilities. This must change.
A reform plan for higher education, both college and university, must focus largely upon faculty development, institute credible national level university entrance examinations, check faculty for adequate subject knowledge before hiring, crack down on widespread academic fraud and plagiarism, and use innovative educational technologies. The bottom line is: how you spend matters much more than how much you spend. Those in charge of higher education must now learn to think more maturely and use finite resources more intelligently.
The author teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.