For A Different Democracy (Part 17)


Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, FRS, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

The corner stone on which a democratic system is built is education. I had the opportunity to make an impact in the higher education sector when I was the Federal Minister of Science & Technology in 2001 and later the Chairman of Higher Education Commission till 2008, I persuaded the government to increase the development budget for science by about 6000% and the development budget for higher education also by 3500%. The allocation of substantially increased funds allowed us to undertake programs to uplift the higher education sector. These programs boosted research in universities and they can be broadly categorised as those related to access, quality, relevance and governance issues.
There were only 59 universities and degree awarding institutes in Pakistan in the year 2000. These grew to 127 such institutions by 2008 and to 187 institutions by 2017. University enrolment grew three-fold, rising from only 276,000 in 2002 to about 900,000 students by 2010, and then to 1.5 million by 2017. The access to higher education grew from about 2.3% of the age group 17-23 in the year 2003 to 10% by the year 2010 and then to 12% by 2017. A number of steps were taken to improve the quality of education and make education relevant to national needs. The most significant of these related to the programs to develop a strong faculty. The fact that in the year 2003 more than 75% of the faculty members in Pakistani universities did not even have a PhD pointed to the poor state of affairs at the time. Therefore about 11,000 scholarships were awarded to the brightest students of which some 5,000 scholarships were to obtain PhD degrees at top universities of the world. The remainder were for local PhD level scholarships as well as for sandwich PhD programmes whereby a part of the time of the locally registered PhD student was spent in a leading foreign university.
To attract the brightest students passing out of high school to opt for careers in education and research, a new contractual system of “tenure track” appointments of faculty members with international review of productivity was enforced under which the salaries of the faculty members were raised to several times of those of Federal Ministers in the government! The first evaluation of such faculty members was to be done after 3 years by an international panel of experts in technologically advanced countries while the second such evaluation was to be done after 6 years before permanency of tenure was granted after positive peer review on both occasions.. Students returning with PhD degrees from abroad were given the opportunity of applying for research grants of up to $ 100,000 one year before their date of return, so that by the time they returned, the peer review process of their research grant application would have been completed and they would be able to settle down with sizeable research funds at their disposal, even if they joined a weaker university with little facilities.
To strengthen the faculty, several new programmes were launched to attract those qualified faculty members working in advanced countries to return to Pakistan at lucrative salaries and with liberal research funding. Some 600 such persons came to Pakistan under these programmes, about half of them permanently and the other half on assignments for one or two terms. Tax rates for all faculty members in public and private universities were reduced from 35% to only 5% thereby giving a boost to their take-home pay. The foreign faculty members were clustered in various institutions to create the critical mass necessary for excellence in research to thrive.
These and other such measures led to a sudden surge in university rankings. During the 55 year period between 1947 to 2002, not a single university could be ranked among the top 400 of the world in international university rankings. By 2008, however several Pakistani universities achieved this yardstick, with NUST (Islamabad) at 273 in the world, UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world and Karachi University (in natural sciences) at 223 in the world. Others included Quaid-e-Azam University (Islamabad) and Mehran Engineering University (Hyderabad). The research publications in journals with ISI impact factors went through an amazing increase from only about 500 per year in the year 2000 to 6,250 per year by 2011 and to above 12,000 by 2017, exceeding those from India if the output is compared on a per million population basis. They continue to in rise by about 15% each year
The progress made in Pakistan during the short period between 2000 to 2008 rang alarm bells in India. On 23rd July 2006, an article was published in the leading daily Indian newspaper Hindustan Times, entitled “Pak Threat to Indian Science”. It was reported that Prof. C.N.R. Rao (Chairman of the Indian Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council) had made a detailed presentation to the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh about the rapid strides that Pakistan was making in the higher education sector after the establishment of the Higher Education Commission in October 2002 and my appointment as its first Chairman. The article began with the sentence “”Pakistan may soon join China in giving India serious competition in science.” (, Neha Mehta, “Pak Threat to Indian Science”, Hindustan Times, 23 July 2006).
The programmes of the Higher Education Commission were regularly subjected to external review by eminent foreign experts. A USAID team of educationists visited Pakistan a number of times and travelled the length and breadth of the country, talking to teachers, students and administrators in the universities and examining the data critically. The USAID report stated: “ One of the most striking aspects of HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities — In keeping with its focus on quality, the attitude of the leadership of the HEC was that “quality is much more important than quantity”.Unquote.
A review of the Higher Education system of Pakistan was also carried out by Prof. Michael Rode, Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development. He wrote in 2008, and I quote: “Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years”Unquote.
A major reason for Pakistan to celebrate is the appearance of an international report on Pakistan’s higher education sector by Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading company which publishes the Web of Science and international citation statistics related to research output. It lauded the tremendous progress made by Pakistan’s Higher Education sector under the Higher Education Commission due the quality assurance measures introduced by it in the universities of Pakistan since 2003. The Report compared Pakistan to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) and after a careful analysis of the statistics, it concluded that the rate of improvement in scientific publications in Pakistan far exceeded that from any of the BRIC countries.
Pakistan has made rapid strides in the last decade in higher education, showing that given the vision, determination and funding, miracles can begin to happen. The key to such progress lies in high quality faculty —good universities are not about beautiful buildings but about beautiful minds! A true democracy should lead us rapidly towards a strong knowledge economy. However education, alas, has been given the lowest priority in national affairs by successive governments. In this knowledge driven world, unless we have visionary technocrats as leaders the country cannot progress.
The author is former Federal Minister of Science & Technology, former Chairman Higher Education Commission and Chairman of UN Committee for Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP

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