Editor’s Note: Pervez Hoodbhoy is head of the Physics Department at Quaid-e-Azam University and a prominent social activist in Pakistan. We conducted this interview through email correspondence over a few weeks, to get his perspective on the state of higher education in Pakistan. This is the first in a two part series. The second part is shared here.

STEP: According to recent estimates, less than half of Pakistan’s population is literate, less than half have access to basic sanitation, and the economy is strangled by debt. In context of this, what is the social relevance and value of the modern university, with its emphasis on research and higher learning, in Pakistan today?"I would shift priorities drastically and emphasize improving the physical infrastructure of 1000+ colleges rather than pampering a few public universities

PH: Pakistan’s social indicators are indeed abysmal. But no country can wait for everything and everybody to get up to speed before making universities. Nor should it, because that would essentially mean waiting forever. But we should remember that there is a difference in the purposes that universities serve in countries like Pakistan, and in advanced countries like the US. The latter have knowledge-driven economies, and universities function as the engines of progress. They are the fountainheads of modern science, and of new technologies that have changed the world more in the past fifty years than the previous ten thousand years.

In Pakistan, our universities do not produce much new technology or ideas.  Nevertheless their graduates are necessary to keep the country going. Else the country would not have engineers, technicians, doctors, and administrators needed to run institutions, factories, businesses, and government.

There is another reason for a country to have universities – and this is quite independent of whether they produce state-of-the art research or not.  Universities are needed to create a modern citizenry capable of responsible and reasoned decision making. Their graduates should be able to think independently and scientifically, have an understanding of history and culture, create discourses on social and political issues, and be capable of coherent expression in speech and writing.

The fact that our universities do not measure well on this score is deeply regrettable. Yet, this suggests that we should strive to improve them, not eliminate them. At the same time, although buildings can rather easily constructed, Pakistan’s very limited intellectual resources put strong constraints on the number of actual higher education institutions that it can have.

STEP: Beyond their role as educational institutions, what is the value of emphasizing research, specifically theoretical and technical research, at universities in Pakistan?

PH: Research on the theoretical aspects of a subject is important for two reasons. First, genuine research, even if it is not cutting edge, makes the individual teacher much more aware of the state of the field and hence a better, more exciting teacher. Book knowledge becomes stale fast, particularly these days. Second, knowledge is advanced only through research, and Pakistan should play a role in this some day. India already is doing so, and Iran has begun to as well. Theoretical research is intellectually harder and more demanding than experimental research, and it consumes far fewer resources. Thus it should be strongly encouraged.

But since “research” is a widely abused term in Pakistan, some careful consideration of its meaning is necessary before attempting to evaluate its current importance in our universities. Research in any professional field — mathematics or physics, molecular biology or engineering, economics or archaeology — does not have a unique, precise definition. But a tentative, exploratory definition might be that research is the discovery of new and interesting phenomena, creation of concepts that have explanatory or predictive power, making of new and useful inventions and processes, etc. In the world of science, the researcher must certainly do something original, not merely repeat what is already known. Just doing something for the first time is not good enough to qualify as research. So, for example, one does not do meaningful research by gathering all kinds of butterflies and listing the number caught of each kind in a particular place at a particular time, etc. Nor does it come from making standard measurements, substituting one material after the other just because “it’s not been done before”.

We must recognize that very few Pakistani universities and their faculty currently have the capacity for real research. Nevertheless, they can still function quite well as knowledge transmitters. For example, some of Pakistan’s elite private universities have good teaching standards although they have few journal publications at this stage of their development. My feeling is that if a university teacher does not have the physical, material, or intellectual resources to do genuine research, it is far better that that person be made to improve his or her pedagogical practices as well as subject understanding. This is far better than churning out junk papers, which no one reads.

PH_BlockQuote2STEP: You have been a leading critic of some of the policies the HEC has initiated to address the state of research in Pakistan. Let’s say you are given Rs 21 billion (HEC’s 2009 budget) and stewardship of an organization with a mandate to reform universities in Pakistan. What would be the three most pressing items on your agenda and how would you go about instituting them?

PH: I would shift priorities drastically and emphasize improving the physical infrastructure of the 1000+ colleges rather than pampering a few public universities. Of the available money and effort, I would put 90% towards improving teaching quality at our public universities and colleges. Only promising research would be supported. Today’s atrocious teaching quality comes largely from having university and college teachers with very poor knowledge of their subject. Therefore I would call for the following:

  1. Require that every applicant for lecturer or assistant professor, either at a public university or college, pass a relevant internationally administered examination (such as the GRE subject test if one is available in that field, else the GRE General Exam). The test would ensure that that person has enough basic knowledge to properly teach the subject. The applicant would also be required to give an introductory lecture, open to all who wish to attend, on a subject belonging to the applicant’s claimed field of expertise. The entire process of teacher selection needs to be made transparent and above board.
  2. Create large-scale teacher-training academies in every provincial capital. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as trainers from across the country and from anywhere in the world. A few master trainers might be willing to come from western countries in spite of the security situation, but hopefully attractive salaries might be able to lure some from India or from outside the Western world. These academies must be on the scale of a mega-project, say on the order of a billion dollars over 5 years. As high-quality institutions, they should have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasize basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. To be effective, they must be degree-awarding institutions.
  3. Build on various current HEC initiatives such as foreign faculty hiring and scholarship schemes for university teachers. There are simply not enough qualified persons within Pakistan to adequately staff university departments. The fact that these schemes have been mismanaged by the HEC should not prejudice one against their potential usefulness if proper procedures and rules are adhered. Those selected for overseas scholarships should be required to clear an international subject test.

STEP: You note that “university and college teachers [have] very poor knowledge of their subject.” Yet, the scope of the teacher-training academies would presumably be pedagogical technique and not the outright re-education of teachers in their subject material. Is a multi-billion rupee investment in pedagogical training worth it, when subject proficiency seems like the fundamental problem?

PH: Thank you for forcing me to clarify. I very much have subject proficiency in mind. In fact, in the proposed new teacher training institutions I would give 90% importance to re-teaching subject basics and only 10% to pedagogy. So, in fact, teaching teachers “teaching-methods” is a very distant second priority. Let me say that those studying in these hypothetical NFAs (National Faculty Academies) would be relearning materials that they are actually supposed to know from their time in college or university. But there would be a crucial difference: this time they will be graded not by how much they have memorized but how well they are able to use what they have learned in order to solve problems. In science, knowledge is useful only if it is internalized rather than memorized. It must become part of your mental tool box.

There would be another important side benefit to having competent teachers. I am convinced that if a teacher knows his or her subject and is able to comfortably solve all or most of the problems at the end of a chapter, it would lead to important attitudinal changes. Some of the authoritarianism of teachers would surely go away. It is a fact that teachers often discourage students from asking questions because they know that their lack of understanding would be exposed. This is lethal for an academic environment.

STEP: Your proposal has a parallel to the erstwhile universities mega-project in that, rather than reforming and investing in existing universities, it recommends creating entirely new institutions. Why the inclination to create new academies instead of focusing resources and effort into reforming existing programs?

PH: Suppose you had inherited an airline company but no pilots. Would you like novices to take your planes up in the hope that they will learn flying that way? Of course not! Similarly we have entire universities, but with almost no people who are fit to teach in them. But they still teach, and nobody stops them. So although we don’t have crashed planes, we have armies of university students who graduated but didn’t survive their mis-education. Therefore, they could never become good scientists, engineers, economists, or whatever. In the hard sciences, I’d estimate that a miserable 20-30 percent of university teachers are actually qualified to teach — and I’m being generous.

To fix this situation, I just don’t know of any way other than training teachers in dedicated, specially created, teaching institutions where, at the end, they would be required to show proof through proper examinations that they’ve learned their subject well enough. It’s like a pilot certification requirement. If you don’t pass, you are not allowed to fly — or teach.

To respond specifically as to why we need new institutions: it’s because we just don’t have any teacher training institutions with anything close to the required intellectual capacity. It’s not about reforming something that presently exists but which is not good enough; nothing presently exists where college and university teachers can be adequately taught subject basics.

I might add one caveat: creating any good educational institution in Pakistan means that we will have to get at least some key people from other countries. Unless Pakistan stabilizes and deals with terrorism effectively, no persuasion will ever succeed in bringing them here. Or, perhaps, even expatriate Pakistanis. So this is a super-priority.

STEP: Why did you choose to return to Pakistan after your bachelors and masters degrees from MIT?PH_BlockQuote1

PH: Like some others of my generation, in the early 1970′s I was witness to the huge political upheaval in the US. American students were staging protests against their own government over its wrong and immoral war in Vietnam. Hitherto I had regarded politics to be a mere game and had barely any interest in these matters. As a naïve middle-class apolitical Pakistani youth, it seemed totally unbelievable to me that MIT students would be protesting against their own government and country — and that too when it was at war. There were huge protests, boycotts, and even occasional violence. I remember witnessing the violent protests against the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory on campus, which was involved in MIRVing nuclear missiles. It was so liberating for me to see people follow the dictates of their conscience. Now a part of the anti-war movement, I fully understood the ugliness of imperial power and participated in the teach-ins and sit-ins. The atrocities that the US was committing in Vietnam had made me so very angry that I did not want to live a day longer in America than was necessary to finish my degrees.

Then, closer to home, there was the slaughter in East Pakistan being carried out by the West Pakistani army. At the same time, there was a movement for social change in Pakistan that promised socialism and justice for the masses. It was initiated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who brought revolutionary politics to Pakistan. What happened to him, and how he reneged on his promises, is another story but those were times of immense hope. I was one of the many overseas students who went back to Pakistan dreaming of changing everything, and of replacing feudalistic and capitalistic exploitation with socialism. So, with a job in hand at Islamabad University (QAU went under this name in the 1970′s) I joined up with others who had also recently returned and we became part of a workers movement in Rawalpindi, known as People’s Labour Federation. With another group of friends who were inspired by the idea of a peasant revolution, I became involved with working as a paramedic and school teacher in a remote Potohar village.

Part 2 is shared here.

14 Responses to “Q&A with Pervez Hoodbhoy: Part 1 of 2”

  1. Yousuf Ahmad says:

    Even though it’s somewhat obvious, I just wanted to point out that it is impossible to erect a sturdy building on weak foundations and therefore our primary and secondary education systems need to be simultaneously addressed too.

    We’re talking about the need to train teachers. Let’s train teachers at all levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. There MUST be a flow of teachers from these urban training centers into rural schools. Currently, there is apparently no other way to transfer acceptable quality basic education to the rural areas.

    You can modify and update curriculums all you want, but unless there are teachers capable of teaching these curriculums, a lot of it will be in vain.

    Figures (http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/pakistan_pakistan_statistics.html) reveal that a significant percentage of primary school students do not make it to the secondary level. Why? I don’t have a definitive answer but I’m sure it is more complicated than it seems.

    I have some questions that might be a little off-topic, but that I will ask nonetheless, as the readers here must be better equipped to answer them than most. Have there been any serious attempts at thinking up ways in which modern technology (consumer electronics + telecommunication + software) might be utilized for imparting acceptable quality primary and secondary education in semi-urban or even rural areas in some physically and/or economically feasible manner yet? If yes, what has come out of these ideas/projects? If no, then maybe we ought to start giving it some thought already.

    Just my 2 paisas.

  2. Binish Bhagwanee says:

    “We Don’t Have Teachers”, I Disagree!

    What you can expect from a person to teach who is getting 4630 Rs per month (an example from Govt. School in Sukkur).

    We have different streams of education, students do get good education in private schools (e.g., A and O levels), and the same teachers are above-average in their private education centers.

    We have three lines of education, Public schools, Madrasah and Private schools. Gradautes from Publich schools are the ones Dr. PH is talking about, gradaute from Madrasah (at least most of them) are as confused as they were in their first day, and gradautes from Private school flee the country.

    We have to make our public schools more attractive for the masses, for good students and for hard working teachers, we have to pay them competitive salaries. I wouldn’t teach for 5000 Rs/Month when my son’s school tuition is 10,000/month :-(

    I also have a suggestion, we can have something like “TeachForPakistan” where the stundets/teachers from elite class or good schools can volunteer sometime and goto public school and teach for few hour every month. We have to stop criticising and step forward and play some role.

    GOD bless Pakistan


  3. Ijaz ALI says:

    I do not agree with Pervaz Hoodbhoy, first he was continuosly targeting HEC. For the first time in the history of Pakistan a goverment has given proper attention to the higher education sector. All the students were selected on merit for higher studies(majority lower and middle class people). In the past all the budgets went into the pockets of politions and in the future I expect the same thing the people like PervaizHoodbhoy were silent in the past and when the funds of HEC will be blocked and will be redirected towards the pockets of politions, he will be silent again.
    His another objection is on the quality of students finananced by HEC for higher studies, and for him GRE type test is the scale of measuring intelligence. For this I would ask you Mr Prof; are you ready to pay fee which some time crosses 15000(GMAT) Pakistani rupees; secondly i know a person who could not even qualify the Pakistan based NTS in several attepts but got a Top ten Position in CSS. and if you want to see the quality of these students please take your phone and contact the foreign labs and ask their professors about their quality and see their DMC’s; a large number of these pakistani students have got positions and have got foreigh scholarships.
    You said that funds should be spent on colleges and schools, So it is a very good idea, today the budget for polio drops is 6 billion ruppees and the budget for the education of NWFP is 4 billion; so you should talk about these billions which are looted that these should be spent on the education.
    In pakistan at school and college level private sector has contributed a lot, but at university level it was of utmost importance for the govt to invest.

    Webmaster’s Note: The comment was edited for content. Please read the content policy before commenting and refrain from personal attacks and baseless accusations.

  4. Mohsin Reza Naqvi says:


    “Build on various current HEC initiatives such as foreign faculty hiring and scholarship schemes for university teachers. There are simply not enough qualified persons within Pakistan to adequately staff university departments.

    ….The fact that these schemes have been mismanaged by the HEC…..

    should not prejudice one against their potential usefulness if proper procedures and rules are adhered. Those selected for overseas scholarships should be required to clear an international subject test.”


    I have heard / read Dr. Hoodbhoy saying things to this same effect on a number of occasions. I was hoping that he would explain that here but was disappointed to note that he did not. Maybe there is more in the second part of this interview.

    I am of the opinion that although the initiatives taken by HEC may not be IDEALLY / FLAWLESSLY managed, but I believe that they have been fairly well managed. The foreign faculty hiring and scholarship programs are fairly transparent and along with other initiatives, they have had a discernibly positive impact on the overall education landscape of the country.

  5. anonymous says:

    I’m just building on someone’s comments here. They commented that perhaps some “TeachForPakistan” initiative should encourage students/instructors to volunteer a few hours at a month at public schools. What I honestly believe is that there’s very little hope in the government taking useful steps towards anything and the greatest potential does indeed lie with citizens’ volunteer efforts.

    However, teaching a few hours a month would bring negligible improvement I think. A regular teacher has a far greater impact than randomly selected people at different times.

    I know of someone whose teacher made her whole class vow that every one of them *will* commit to educating one person in their life. I think something like this would be a far more effective approach. Some sort of program where selected or volunteer students can actually “adopt” a younger brother/sister as a student in their field, and remain committed to them for at least a certain field of education for a certain period of time – perhaps a year or two at least.

    • Bilal Zafar says:

      If “Teach For Pakistan” is built along the same lines as Teach for America (http://www.teachforamerica.org/), which probably is not what Bee had in mind, then it will be a full two-year committment for recent college graduates. At least in the case of TfA, these graduates work as full-time teachers, with all the perks and responsibilities of a teacher. That may be a bit far-fetched in the context of Pakistan, and may be that’s why Bee suggested a scaled-down version of it where volunteers devote only a few hours a week.

      While I agree with you that a few hours of volunteering at random probably will not have a significant impact, I think these are worthwhile efforts nonetheless. At the very least, they get young people involved in volunteering work and that in its own right is no small feat. An intersting example of this is Project Topi (http://www.giki.edu.pk/Students/Societies/Project%20Topi/index.html) which took students at GIK Institute into the villages near their campus. Yaser can chime in on this, but my sense is that the volunteers probably learned just as much as the kids they were volunteering to teach, if not more!

      I like your mentoring idea. One example of this is the Big Brothers Big Sisters initiative in the US (http://www.bbbs.org).

      • Asim Fayaz says:

        Four months back, we started a similar project at LUMS under the LUMUN (a Model UN society at LUMS) banner. It’s called the LUMUN Social Responsibility Program (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=103077145999&ref=ts). Instead of starting our own programs, we partnered with NGOs and aided their existing programs. Here’s what we did:

        CARE Foundation runs an “ACCESS to English Language Program” which provides free English classes to students of government schools. We had a team of 50 volunteers from all elitist private schools and colleges in Lahore who for 2 months visited these ACCESS centers every Friday/Saturday at places in Lahore like Fatehgarh, Harbanspura, Township, Rehmanpura, etc. They taught public speaking and debating by assigning 1 volunteer to 4-5 students. At the end of the 2 months, we held a Public Speaking Competition between students from the 15 ACCESS centers at Alhamra that was judged by mainstream debates coaches like Taimoor Banday and Omair Rana. Our next target is to get a team from these centers to participate in mainstream Model UN Conferences in Pakistan like LUMUN.

        SAVE (Society for the Advancement of Education) is an NGO that operates Free Mashal Primary School at a village in Lahore. They’re teaching an English-medium curriculum. Since it’s a donation-based school, they’re not able to afford qualified (and expensive) teachers. As a result, the quality of teaching is poor. Some teachers even have to translate the text in Urdu for themselves before teaching the kids. For 2 months, our 20 volunteers went 6 days a week, 10am – 1pm, and worked with the teachers to help them improve the level of teaching. We also helped them prepare tests and exams.

        The volunteers all hailed from elitist private schools/colleges like Aitchison, LGS, LUMS, LSE and Alma. Convincing them to make the first visit was hard but once they had interacted with the kids, it was smooth sailing thereon.

        We’re now working on how to expand the program by affiliating with more NGO programs and coming up with small projects that student volunteers can take up as and when they’re free during their academic year. You can check out the Facebook Group for details. Feedback here (or on the group) would be highly appreciated.

  6. Zia Banday says:

    From your answers it appears that you had socialists leanings in younger times, which I believe usually all sensitive souls have. However, pragmatism sometimes demand compromises in real life. As you replied against a question that if provided Rs. 21 billion budget to spend on education, you will be spending the whole amount in colleges in Pakistan, raising teachers standards there. Will you please clarify:

    1. Do you believe on central planning in education, where some high intellectual elite sitting in the centre decides what needs to be taught at lower levels, with lower rungs have to implement this plan of studies.
    2. Do you think that market has any role in managing education at college level, only government bureaucrats decide how much budgetary allocation to be made for each college.
    3. In your opinion your suggested method has the most probability to induce motivation in teaching staff without any linkage with market for sustaining their future growth.
    4. What are the opportunities of public private partnership for college education, where human motivation for fame & social recognition could be used for attracting private monies for creating private ownership through establishing trusts

  7. [...] HEC, I also met and talked to a number of university leaders as well as HEC’s critics including Dr. Hoodbhoy. Dr. Naqvi made available to us a lot of data that we believe had not been publicly available in [...]

  8. Bilal Zafar says:


    That is some excellent work you describe.

    Just out of curiosity, did you have any institutional support, for example, from LUMS, on this project or is this a completely student-led, student-managed effort with no input from any institution (except the NGOs that you work with, of course)?

  9. Asim Fayaz says:


    Thank you for your kind words. We informed LUMS of our operations since we were using LUMS’ name and resources for fund-raising, meetings, etc. But other than that, SRP is a completely student-led, student-managed effort.

  10. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for business plan


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