Pakistan has a large higher education system with over 190 recognized private and public sector universities. Unfortunately, no Pakistani university is among the top 600 universities in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019.
This is an indication that there is a definite need to improve Pakistan’s higher education system. The need is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the over 200 million people in the country are young.
According to official figures, 64 percent of Pakistanis are below the age of 30. Any higher educational reform must be designed to take this significant age cohort into account.
With the new government of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) in Islamabad which placed a great emphasis on human development in its election manifesto, the country appears to be poised to address the higher education challenge. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI has promised to put in place “the most ambitious education agenda in Pakistan’s history, spanning reform of primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational, and special education.”
It remains to be determined whether his government will be able to walk the talk. That’s because there are many areas that must be addressed in order to develop Pakistan’s higher educational system. Three are at the top of the list.
First is quality improvement. As noted, Pakistan higher educational institutions were not ranked in the top 600 on Times Higher Education Ranking. Only three Pakistani universities — COMSATS Institute of Information Technology University of Agriculture, Faisalabad and National University of Sciences and Technology ranked in the top 1000 universities in the world. In comparison, five universities in neighboring India made it to top 500 and 33 made it to top 1000 global institutions in the Times ranking. Pakistan’s poor performance comes in spite of the fact that successive governments launched a variety of measures to improve higher education two decades since the inception of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002.
Second is access. The number of Pakistani universities has increased to 192but the ratio of higher education institutions to the eligible population is still significantly lower than that of other neighboring countries. The ratio of PhD members of the total faculty is below 30 per cent. Poor Pakistanis are unable to afford to private sector universities. Thus, there is need to increase public sector universities. The higher education allocation in the budget is woefully insufficient at only 0.26 percent of GDP.
Third, is Pakistan’s regulatory body the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Last month, the second most senior official of the body, the Executive Director had to resign over plagiarism charges. A former HEC Chairman is facing similar charges. Merit-based appointment in the HEC and all the universities has been a major challenge over the past several years. Under the 18th constitutional amendment, the provincial governments were supposed to establish their own higher education commissions (HECs). Until now, only the Punjab and Sindh provinces have set up their own HECs, while Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir have failed to make any substantial progress on this front.
Given the foregoing conditions, all eyes are on the newly elected government to address the key challenges and problems faced by the higher education sector. In his first speech after being elected as the Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted the importance of a knowledge economy, youth empowerment and strengthening higher education. While chairing a high-level meeting attended by senior educationists, he said every possible effort would be made to provide required resources to the universities for promotion of higher education.
This commitment represents a good beginning and a sound vision. For Pakistan to excel on the world stage, it needs to use that framework to reach high. It needs to have the end goal of making Pakistan’s higher education system world class.
Imran Khan was one of the greatest cricket players in the history of the sport. He achieved that status through grit and determination and a commitment to becoming world class. Pakistan needs to make a similar commitment to higher education for its citizens.
Over time, and it will take decades, Pakistan needs to develop a world class higher education system. Such a system would be student or customer-centered rather than institution-centered. It would be comprised of certified and caring institutions that have the resources required and the core mission of ensuring that students/customers acquire the knowledge/skills/abilities and dispositions that they need to achieve their individual goals and to maximize their contribution to society.
There are many steps that must be taken to make Pakistan’s higher education system world class.
The federal and provincial governments currently provide limited funding for higher education. Public sector financing could be used to support existing public institutions and to establish new ones in regions in which there are limited higher educational opportunities.
Colleges and universities throughout Pakistan have inadequate physical settings, lack equipment, and suffer from a shortage of competent teachers. Ensuring that each higher educational institution is infrastructurally sound, establishes the proper environment for learning and growth.
The enrollment in higher education is approximately 9% of the eligible Pakistan population. This percentage needs to be much higher for the country to be considered and to become a developed or developing country. It also needs to be representative of the entire population of Pakistan including females, those from the weaker sectors, and rural areas.
The functioning of the HEC must be markedly improved. The higher education bodies should be set up in all provinces as per the constitution. These regulatory body should collect data and use it to monitor performance and ensure accountability for each institution in the higher education system.
The higher education system must meet the needs of potential employers and prospective employees. Currently, there is a mismatch. The higher educational system must equip itself to be the provider of first resort to provide Pakistan with a skilled workforce.
There are many other steps that must be taken — such as ensuring effective collaboration between the Centre and provinces to improve the standards of universities and other higher education institutions, – in order to make Pakistan’s higher education system world class. With this new administration, the vision is there and the journey has begun. It should not conclude until the destination of being world class is reached.