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Higher Education plays a key role in development of knowledge economies and learning societies within all nations. Pakistan is the 5th largest country in the world by population, 2nd largest in the Muslim world and 33rd in the world by area. Despite these impressive statistics, it has been struggling to establish an effective education system for many decades, something that is perhaps not befitting of the resources and workforce available to this huge country.

According to QS world ranking, Pakistan has one of the weakest higher education systems in the world. This is a surprising assessment considering that higher education is governed by a well-established institution called Higher Education Commission (HEC).

With an annual budget of 102 billion rupees (£510 million), HEC is responsible for promotion of higher education, research and development in Pakistan. With only 218 universities to manage, it should not be a huge task to benchmark these universities and implement effective quality controls. However, HEC is failing, rather impressively, in maintaining the quality of Higher Education. The engine for ‘socio-economic development’ is barely ‘vrooming’ and it is far from achieving a world class outcome in terms of delivering its objectives compared to available resources. On paper, the structure of Quality Assurance Agency, established on the footsteps of British QAA, looks immaculate and shiny but the grim reality is that deep in the practices, it is looking far from bright.

Pakistan produces half a million graduates every year. Except for those from a handful of institutions, the quality of these graduates is awfully low. The curriculum in the majority of these institutions is dated, there are no industry links, assessment methods are old and governance is non-existent. In the absence of effective quality controls, dozens of branches, franchises and affiliate colleges are performing horrendously. Thirty percent of the students are enrolled through these franchises and affiliated colleges, where the quality of education is disastrous.

Last year, HEC announced a vision 2025 which has an ambitious goal of enrolling 7.1 million students. Already producing low quality graduates, the struggling system is destined to choke. With insufficient and inefficient institutional capacity building, poor staff development, lack of linkage with industry and a complete absence of market analysis, this would only produce millions of low quality graduates.

The recently developed qualification framework, adapted from the British, is ambiguous and implemented with little understanding. The qualification framework should have clear awards and progression possibilities at each level rather than having level 6 MPhil, MBA and MSc which are equivalent to a 3 year bachelor’s degree in the UK.

Despite some well established universities, and some new ones, it is clear that they do not understand how to implement education strategies and how to form an effective learning environment. For example, one university in Pakistan offers 41 mandatory subjects to its students in addition to 4 optional subjects whilst universities around the world would offer the same course with less than 20 subjects, resulting in a much more cohesive course and with a quality of learning that is far greater.

Faculty development is also a key aspect for successful delivery of modern-day education. However, due to continuous deterioration of the system, people with mediocre skills and abilities have entered the system. Due to absence of accountability, monitoring and training, the incompetence is so rampant that a small amount of training or advice wouldn’t make a dent. Moreover, various interest groups try to influence and protect these incumbents for their own reasons, resulting in further deterioration. Only an effective staff development programme run or monitored by the HEC and independently benchmarked can improve this grave situation.

With such a matter of strategic importance that has already been jeopardised, higher education should be dealt with by emergency measures and quality assurance should be the top priority for existing institutions rather than expanding the enrolments to millions more. To ensure quality at national level, it is important that people with the right understanding, abilities and skills in the relevant areas are chosen. It is necessary to develop a framework to ensure continuous and fair feedback.

Just like the political landscape, the systems at HEC seem very individualistic. When the top person leaves the organisation, everything falls apart or is changed by the new incumbent. Whilst the framework and policies are being developed at HEC, we also need the right institutional mechanism to implement these policies at university level. Currently universities seriously lack HR as well as faculty interest due to nonexistence of accountability. The appointments of the Vice Chancellor have very little impact on the assessment for quality, engagement with industry, application of knowledge etc. Regular reviews of their performance need to be carried out and action plans with strict deadlines should be agreed upon with the HEC in order to improve the system.

HEC should be working tirelessly to improve on all of the key areas which set the foundations of any successful HE programmes around the world. HEC is an institution of strategic importance for our country and it should play its role with utmost diligence and sincerity. By improving governance at all levels, HEC can change the landscape of Higher Education in Pakistan, stop the churning out of low quality graduates, and bring much-anticipated socio-economic change.

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Dr. Ajaz Ali

Ajaz Ali, holds an MBA from the University of Birmingham and doctorate in computer science from University of Sunderland. Aside from his role as academic head of computing at Ravensbourne University London, he occasionally writes about education, technology and business.