October issue 2010

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 14 years ago

“The country needs to invest in education. Period”
– Dr Javaid R. Laghari
Higher Education Commission


Wearing black armbands and carrying placards, faculty members of 72 public sector universities from all over the country staged protests and suspended classes last month. This highest intellectual cadre of our society had taken to the streets demanding a reversal of the government decision to reduce the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) budget, which funds university projects and scholarships for students, and the government’s indecision about bearing the cost of an extra Rs 7 billion on account of a 50% raise in employees’ salaries since July 1. The strike call was given by the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA).

In the recurring budget for the financial year 2010-11, the government announced a 50% ad hoc increase in the salaries of university employees. Numerous meetings were held to resolve the dispute over the blocking of funds which were chopped in the wake of fiscal constraints. The government has allocated Rs 15.8 billion for the HEC for the current year, an amount which is Rs 19 billion less than that needed. The FAPUASA warned the government to immediately release funds so that university teachers could get their increased salaries at the end of the month. They criticised the finance minister and the education minister for their ‘apathetic attitude towards education’ and threatened to resign. Finally, the government accepted their main demand and announced to release the 50% increase along with the 15% medical allowance for government employees.

Newsline met Dr Javaid R. Laghari, chairperson HEC, to get the inside story.

Q: Your demands were met. The money was released. Are you satisfied?

A: Satisfied? No. This is just a band-aid to stop the bleeding. The funding is in two parts. One is for development purposes, which is growth, and the other is the recurring or running expenditure, in which there was a 50% reduction. There was a deficit of Rs 6 billion, which they have agreed to provide. But in terms of growth, the funding has already been slashed from the requested Rs 30 billion to Rs 15 billion. This will mean zero growth.

Q: What will be the repercussions of this non-growth?

A: Ever since the establishment of the HEC in 2002, students’ enrolment has grown steadily every year and literally tripled in the last eight years, going up from 3,000 to 8,500 students. That’s phenomenal growth. The cut means no new building, no new departments, and no new university at home. It also means no new scholarships for students. Hundreds of research projects will be withheld. There will be a lull and the impact will only be visible after four years.

It’s a documented fact that the enrolment density of universities (the number of graduates you produce) per capita, directly relates to the GDP of the country. Public universities, as compared to private universities, cater to the poor, underprivileged income group and middle class because the fee is subsidised. This is the class who can’t afford premier education in private universities, nor have the resources to go abroad. Any cut would be detrimental towards creating a middle-class economy in Pakistan.

In spite of the growth, the number of Pakistanis between 17 to 23 years of age, who have access to higher education, went up from 2.6% to 5.1%. But although we are at 5.1%, we are still as low as sub-Saharan Africa.

Compare that with next-door India which is at 12% (for every 100 people, 12 in that age group are going to universities). Typically in the ’60s, many far eastern countries such as Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand invested heavily in higher education. Today, Malaysia’s enrolment stands at 30%, while emerging economies like Korea are as high as 80%. In the ’60s we were ahead of them, but today they are four to 10 points ahead of us because they invested heavily in higher education.

Q: There is criticism that the growth has been too fast. Is that compromising on quality?

A: It takes years and years to be able to see any qualitative impact. But I can give you some indicators. Until recently, no Pakistani university was amongst the 500 top-ranking universities of the world. Only a few years ago, for the first time, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) featured among the top 500 universities of the world. Last week’s rating shows NUST and Lahore University of Technology among the top 300 high-ranking universities of the world. I consider that a quality indicator that shows we have started moving up. Malaysia has five universities in that list, Turkey has four and India has eight. So we are not that bad. We not only want to see that number grow, but increase in rank as well.

The increase in the number of PhDs is another indicator. In the first 55 years of Pakistan, we produced a total of 3,000 PhDs, mostly in humanities or other softer subjects. In just the last eight years, we have produced as many as 3,280 PhDs and most of these are in the fields of science, engineering and technology, which is one of the reasons why we have become prominent in world figures.

If you see a per year figure, we have gone from a low of 200-300 PhDs to more than 700 PhDs per year. The number of research publications has soared from 800 to more than 4,000 now, and they are quality publications. The world has started to take notice.

Q: The funding has increased every year, and hence there are allegations of waste and corruption. To what extent is that true?

A: At an average, we are spending $700 per student as compared to $12,000 in state universities in the US. Look at the uphill task. Yet we have been able to do it. We were sending 1,000 students a year to universities in 22 different countries of the world — Oxford, London School of Economics, MIT, Cambridge. The funding has increased in nominal rupees, no doubt. But what is the real increase? Count the dollar-rupee parity and the inflation factor. Everyone said that there is a 1% increase in this year’s budget.

Inflation is between 15—20%. The growth is another 15% per year. When you add up these two, you need a minimum of 30% just to be at par. Add on top of that the 50% salary increase that the federal government has decided and, in real terms, you end up in a decrease. This exercise, performed by a British author, has looked at this curve. In the last two years, there’s been a drop, not an increase.

We started off a good journey of creating a knowledge capital in the country that will trigger the creation of a middle-class society and socio-economic development in Pakistan. That will now be hijacked. Any reduction in the funding will be detrimental. The impact of this typically takes 20 years. Countries like South Korea or Malaysia who invested in the ’60s started showing their impact in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, obviously, they’ve moved ahead. We have not even begun to create that momentum. A PhD typically takes four years to finish. Those who went have started coming back now. Nearly 350 PhDs have returned to the country — it’s the tip of the iceberg.

Q: What about those who do not return. Is it worth the investment?

A: The country has invested so much in them and they have signed a bond. As soon as they complete their PhD, they are bound to return home. Once the bond period ends, they are free to go, then we can’t stop them. A PhD student anywhere in the world is very visible; writing papers, attending conferences. He is not difficult to Google. All one has to do is write to his university and complain about his breach of bond and they’ll send him back on ethical values. But so far, only 12 students are at default and are being pursued.

Q: What are the job prospects of those PhD students who return? Is there enough opportunity for them in Pakistan?

A: If you don’t create opportunities for them, why would they come? The HEC has offers for the returning PhDs before they even land. We not only place them in a university, but supplement them with research grants and salaries for at least one year from HEC funds. Just imagine the impact when these people will come back. How high will the number of publications go? The number of PhD theses in the country? The 700 figure will go up to 2,000. It’s a complete momentum cycle.

02JavaidLaghari10-10Q: In the past few months, HEC has been praised for its responsible position and for taking a stand on the verification of fake degrees. Any political pressures?

A: Having a fake degree is a big crime. It makes no difference whether it is a politician’s or a government’s dignity at stake; the names were not important to us. We were given copies of the degrees by the Election Commission who had been approached by the Supreme Court to have these degrees verified. We were just doing our job to ensure that a transparent procedure is followed, irrespective of the political pressures. We apply the same criteria across the board, without any exemption. That is why we are still having difficulty in verifying close to 600 degrees. Unless the whole procedure is followed, we will not certify that the degree is real.

Some 350 to 400 degrees verified were real, 55 turned out to be fake and 13 are sub judice, which we will not comment on. Another 12 degrees have been disqualified by the courts directly and some 600 are still in the pipeline.

Q: What is your future survival strategy?

A: The message has been given that we have to raise funds; everywhere else in the world the government subsidises education. We need to rationalise the fee as there will be no free coffee. The fee structure is very low. We will need to start a formula that people who have the capacity to pay, should pay; those who do not, should get financial assistance.

We will continue to articulate and advocate to the government. It’s a matter of priority. It’s not that we don’t have the money, the government revenues raised amount to Rs 1.3 trillion. The total economy is Rs 2.3 trillion. Out of Rs 2,300 billion, you don’t have Rs 15 billion for education?

Those who have left will be funded for all four years. But we have stopped new scholars from going abroad. They have been given scholarships, their passports are stamped, and their bags are packed. But we cannot commit to the four-year funding.

The country needs to invest in education. Period. We need to preserve the progress made so far. While everything is expenditure, higher education is an investment and, that too, with a very high return down the road. Just because that high return is not immediately visible, it becomes a low priority. Because they would rather see an underpass or a bypass that immediately translates into votes.