Very few scientists are able to successfully navigate the road between a research lab, academic administration, and the government. Shaukhat Hameed Khan is certainly one scientist who has. An Oxford-trained nuclear physicist, Dr. Khan started the first group working on lasers at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1969. During the proceeding four decades, he contributed to the nation’s nuclear program, served as the Rector of Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology, and as a member of the Planning Commission. Dr. Khan now serves as the Executive Director of Society for the Promotion of Engineering Sciences and Technology in Pakistan (SOPREST), the parent body of GIK Institute. In this two-part interview, we talk about higher education, HEC, GIKI and much more.
Let’s start by talking about the recent funding crisis at the HEC and the universities. Do the universities have a point that current funding is simply inadequate? Is there a way out?
The Universities are quite vulnerable as regards their development budgets, which are frozen except for the projects nearing completion. I believe considerable funds have been released for their operational expenditures and the critical moment is over.
I must point out that while the HEC has done excellent work by focusing on developing the physical and intellectual infrastructure and hence access to higher education, this growth cannot continue at such a high rate indefinitely. The Universities have been conditioned by HEC to expect funding increases every year, with few serious reviews in place. In fact, (until recently) HEC was expecting 20-26 % increase in funds annually for the foreseeable future, which was simply not sustainable.
The recent funding crisis was foreseen earlier, and the HEC was cautioned as far back in 2007 by the Planning Commission – where I looked after Higher Education – to pause and consolidate, to slow down expansion, and concentrate on quality matters, which is perhaps more important than mere numbers. After all the only deliverable from a University is its graduates and their competence and ability in meeting the demands of the very competitive 21st century. This does not mean, as some have suggested recently, that the HEC and Universities should not have received large funding at all. However, this crisis has thrown up the opportunity for a major review of the HEC itself, and address the issues of its organizational efficiency, and decision framework. Of particular importance are activities related to funding for research, accreditation, and rankings which needs to be reviewed for potential conflict of interest. This is extremely urgent under the new devolution regime.
Please remember that Pakistan is not unique in facing this problem. Higher education and its funding is in crisis everywhere. This is why Western Universities solicit students from countries such as Pakistan so that they can continue to subsidize their own students one way or the other. Coming now to the present, even without a financial crisis as at present, this tapering off of funds would have happened, but it should have been gentler and more gradual. With the economy being badly hit by several factors such as the global crisis in financial sector, inflation in fuel and food prices, war in Afghanistan next door, and now the floods; all have heightened the fragility of governance and macroeconomic instability.
The current stress on the Universities is expected to continue.
What is the way out?
First, reduce costs, and mobilize other resources simultaneously, with a moratorium on new development projects for at least 3-4 years. The word should be: Consolidate. There is just not enough faculty to allow further expansion, and the result of this shortage is that we have a ‘teach – hop – teach’ syndrome exploited by roaming ‘visiting faculty’. While a few thousand PhDs will no doubt be joining Pakistani universities in the near future, I do not buy into the argument that a freshly returned PhD , no matter how talented, must also be a good teacher.
Ultimately it comes down finally to increasing internal efficiencies. Increase the student: teacher ratios to 25 instead of 18 to one, and reduce the very high ratio of non-teaching staff to total staff in Universities. This hasn’t changed much over the years and need to come down to 1:1 from the current 3:1 Perhaps more mergers may be the answer, as there are too many small, non-critical, and hence inefficient institutions operating in Pakistan. Hardly any University has enrollment on its own campus(es) of 15,000 to 25,000 students. I ignore affiliated colleges, which offer two year degrees.
Given the funding shortfall we’re likely to face even in the future, isn’t increasing the tuition fee a prudent option? Shouldn’t public universities be responsible for generating at least some significant portion of their operating expenditure?
Public universities certainly need to generate more funds themselves, and should also be more prudent in expenditures, because the desired funds will just not be available. Let me give you an idea of the expected shortfall. According to the HEC’s Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF 2005-2015) the projected expenditures are Rs 1150 billion over this period. The resultant shortfall would be nearly Rs 600 billion unless additional resources are harnessed, as pointed out by the World Bank in late 2006. Such expenditures are neither feasible nor justified given the national tax : GDP ratio of only about 10%. The matter is made worse by the increasing burden of pensions and major increase in emoluments of all employees.
What are the possible solutions?
First, the HEC must slow down the pace of development and expansion, and should stop any new programmes for 4-5 years.
Second, there is no choice but to increase tuition fees, which is admittedly likely to result in higher unit costs / student apart from slowing the growth in enrolment and increasing the inequities already existing in the country’s education structure. On the other hand, it is argued that Higher Education provides an economic advantage to those who get it, and no fees (or low fees) gives an unfair economic facility to those who can afford to pay.
This is not easy to implement, as it is linked with the sensitive question about how much cost recovery is reasonable. All public universities should be encouraged to progressively generate at least 50% of their operational expenses within five years, coupled with rigorous means testing for financial assistance in order to preserve some equity. The concept of interest-free student loans from an expanded Student Fund needs to be visited, with the loans being paid back after obtaining jobs.
Thirdly, we need to recall our traditional concept of waqf through land being attached to universities for their upkeep. All our major mosques and madrassa have such endowments. Oxford and Cambridge are the biggest landlords in the UK while land-grant universities in the USA have also been quite successful. Some Pakistani universities have plenty of spare land even after decades of existence, and can use some of it to generate some revenues. Vertical physical growth will also be more efficient in space utilization. This also means raising and managing endowment funds from alumni and businessmen.
Fourthly, HEC needs to improve its own internal efficiencies as well as of universities (student teacher ratios, faculty: non-faculty numbers, better trained and educated administrative personnel). While the operational costs of HEC are of the order of 3% of its operational funding of universities, it is too high when the sheer disparity in its personnel numbers versus all the universities is taken into account.
Fifth, the HEC needs to revisit all the incentives it offered to university faculty for doing research and supervising PhD students. This may no longer be valid now with much enhanced faculty salaries, and will reduce the operating costs considerably.
Sixth, the student numbers being sent abroad for MS or PhD need to be reduced in the proportion of the returning PhD scholars from abroad, as more and more PhD work should be done progressively within the country.
All these measures have to be applied simultaneously.
What do you make of the role that the private sector is playing in higher education in Pakistan? Current and likely future funding shortfalls for public sector universities will likely increase the role that private universities are playing? How can that be managed better?
The private sector is already very active in higher education, with some 35 % of enrollment, and 60 private universities as against 75 public institutions. It can make even greater contribution by reducing the burden on the public exchequer, specially in the present crisis, where its role can be more efficient in providing access to higher education. Even though private Institutions are generally smaller, and more expensive, their graduates such as from GIKI and LUMS are well regarded by academia, business and industry.
It would be necessary to provide the private sector a more level playing field by making them eligible for state R& D funds, which should be neutral and depend only on the quality of proposal. At the same time, they will need they need to submit to greater regulation, scrutiny, and transparency in quality and financial matters, in regard to full-time faculty and the exemption from income tax.
In our interview with Dr. Asad Abidi, he talked about the importance of vocational training and how most of the industrial economies were built on vocational training. Why hasn’t that happened in Pakistan? And, would establishing vocational training institutions not have been a better investment of public funds than sending students for PhDs, funding research at local universities, and other programs that HEC started ?
I agree entirely with Dr Asad Abidi. We cannot increase our economic envelope without raising our collective competence, which alone will ensure our breaking out of the low skills, low productivity, low expectations trap. Just 1% of our 12-17 age group are enrolled in some skill-development programme as compared with, say, Turkey which enrolls nearly 21% of this age cohort. Why is this so? It is not glamorous enough. We have more doctors than nurses and more engineers than technicians. However, it is not an either-or situation.
We have to improve the quality of students entering University; even more important we need to make secondary education economically relevant, which requires rapid increase in funding for schools and colleges.
We now need to move beyond merely higher education and focus on schools and colleges, specially the neglected transition link between school education and economically relevant skills. After all the knowledge worker in the 21st Century is as much the switchboard operator, or the admissions clerk in a college or the person behind the sales counter or the fisherman and farm worker, as is a PhD.
I feel that the vocationalisation of secondary education (class 8-10) with one or more vocational tracks offered to complement traditional schooling will help reduce school dropouts and improve productivity. It will also make our young people more employable, and keep them away from social distress and mischief. When I left GIKI as Rector, I went back briefly to the Planning Commission and managed to produce a policy paper on expanding quality and relevance of vocational/technical education. This has been accepted by the CDWP and also recently accepted by USAID one of three major reforms needed in Pakistan’s education sector.
Do remember that university and vocational training are not an either-or choice. Both are essential, and with universities now approaching a certain threshold, it is possible to shift the focus to the neglected technical training sector.
I estimate that it will cost a fifth per student per year for a technical diploma /certificate as compared with a university undergraduate degree, with earlier economic returns.
In Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Shaukhat Hameed Khan we talk about GIKI and Dr. Khan’s experience working as the Rector of GIKI.