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Silent Revolution in Higher Education – Atta-ur-Rahman, FRS (NI, HI, SI, TI)

Silent Revolution in Higher EducationAtta-ur-Rahman, FRS (NI, HI, SI, TI)

The period from 2003 to 2008 has one that dramatically transformed the landscape of higher education in Pakistan. The deserts that were our universities have been transformed into fertile fields of scholarship and academic endeavor. The sparkle in the eyes of young men and women, tell tales of the new age of discovery that lies yonder.

I look back with pride at what our country achieved in this short period. The rapid progress made by Pakistan even sent alarm bells ringing loudly 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.” (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-1082216661.html), Neha Mehta, “Pak Threat to Indian Science”, Hindustan Times, 23 July 2006). In December 2012, the Indian cabinet decided to follow Pakistan’s footsteps. The University Grants Commission in India is being closed down and a new organisation is being established —the National Commission of Higher Education and Research —on the pattern of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. This year Pakistan should overtake India in its research publication in international journals per million population – we should have about 8,000 publications against India’s 50,000, with a seven fold difference in population between the two countries. On the same yardstick, we were 10 fold behind ten years ago. This is no mean achievement, and the World Bank in its comprehensive report on higher education rightly termed it as a “silent revolution”.

This sensational progress sounds like a fairy tale, but it is all true. It all started in 2001 when as the Federal Minister of Science & Technology in 2001, I persuaded the government to increase the development budget for science by about 6000%. The abolishing of the University Grants Commission and the establishment of the Higher Education Commission in 2002 as a powerful new national body on higher education that was headed by a person with the status of a Federal Minister and which reported directly to the Prime Minister of Pakistan marked a new chapter in the history of higher education in Pakistan. Later in 2002 when I was made the founding Chairman of Higher Education Commission, I managed to have the development budget for higher education increased also by some 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, research/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 157 institutions by 2013. University enrolment grew more than three-fold, rising from only 276,000 in 2002 to 1.3 million students by 2013. The access to higher education grew from about 2.3% of the age group 17-23 in the year 2003 to 9.5% by the year 2013. Research publications in international journals grew from 700 per year in 2002 to 9500 per year by 2013, overtaking India in terms of research publications per million population. PhD output increased from only 3500 PhDs produced in the 55 year period (between 1947 to 2003), to over 6000 PhDs produced in the subsequent 10 years. 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.

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! Minimum eligibility criteria for appointments as Associate Professors and full Professors were also toughened so that only those active in high quality research could go up the promotion ladder. 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 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. For instance about 40 foreign faculty members (mostly non-Pakistanis from Europe) were appointed in the Centre for Mathematics at the Government College University in Lahore resulting in the emergence of a good mathematics institution. All curricula were revised and modernised in consultation with subject experts and industry order to increase employment and improve quality. A system of internal and external peer review was introduced in all universities and Quality Assurance cells set up in every public sector university, the performance of which was monitored by the Higher Education Commission.

The rapid progress made by Pakistan in the IT and telecom sector during 2000-2002 under my charge as Federal Minister later proved invaluable for the Higher Education sector. The libraries in universities prior to the year 2002 were in a very poor shape with hardly half a dozen of the latest international journals being subscribed to by any of them. The improvement in the IT infra-structure led to the establishment of a nation-wide digital library under the auspices of the Pakistan Education Research Network (PERN) with some 25,000 international journals and 60,000 text books from 220 international publishers.

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, almost equaling those from India if the output is compared on a per million population basis. They continue to in rise by about 20% each year. Similarly the citations in the Science Citation Index increased by a 1000% in the same period. Dr. Akram Sheikh, former Executive Director of Higher Education Commission and former Deputy Chairman Planning Commission deserves our gratitude for his constant help in this revolutionary period.

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. I reproduce here  sections of the USAID report published in 2008 that resulted from the year-long review:

” 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.  Expectations were set high from the outset. Quality goal targets were set as international standards and expectations.  Faculty promotions, publications, PhD dissertations, research grants, and many of the HEC programs were subject to these standards including evaluation by external peer reviewers.  — 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.

Higher Education Commission has survived the test of times. Attempts to stifle it by all and sundry have been in vain. For it was born and made of a different breed. Nurtured with the strength of truth and the passion of knowledge, it has come of age —to show the world what can be achieved by a few souls that cherish truth and its pursuit above all else.


The author is the former Minister of Science & Technology, Founding Chairman of Higher Education Commission and UNESCO Science Laureate.

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