July Issue 2014

By | Education | Published 10 years ago

In what ways do you think the standard of our primary education affects our higher education? 

The rot begins early in a student’s life. Instead of encouraging curiosity and intellectual adventure, our school system forces obedience and passivity into the student’s mind. Teachers, parents and students accept memorisation as the most important component of education; the printed word is holy and unchallengeable.

This must be contrasted with how children in developed countries, and some fast progressing third world countries, are taught. They emphasise learning through examples and reasoning, and teach their children what is needed for the modern world. But in Pakistan’s faith-based, anti-science culture, evidence and proof are of secondary importance at best. Students can readily rattle off verse after verse, whether a holy one or one from a science book, with remarkably little understanding. Except in schools for Pakistan’s super elite, students are rarely given problems to solve, or something that will truly engage the mind. Principles do not get internalised and are soon forgotten.

Within the past decade, there has been a sudden rise in the number of PhD degrees that Pakistan is handing out, mainly in science. Do you think our education system equips science students well enough to earn a PhD in the future? 

In Pakistan, anyone can get a PhD, but the real question is whether that degree is worth the name. There is a way to answer this fairly objectively: let’s take a college-level book in that person’s area of expertise, and turn to the end-of-chapter questions. Then see which questions our PhD ‘Doctor’ can solve. Barring the noble exception, our teachers and students simply don’t measure up to any reasonable expectations. I would estimate that of the 9,000 persons who are currently doing their PhDs in Pakistani universities, less than 90 would be able to pass the Bachelor’s level examinations at a good American university. Lacking a sound theoretical base, these persons are nevertheless forced into ‘research’ and to publish papers. But this is entirely meaningless because they do not possess the necessary subject competence needed for research.

The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) made several changes in 2002 that resulted in the rise in the number of doctorates across Pakistan. Do you think the HEC is only focusing on quantity rather than quality?

It was a pure numbers game that produced mostly academic garbage. The reasonably good degrees were drowned in the junk that was produced.

I want to quote one example at some length because I argued fruitlessly for months with Dr Javed Leghari, who was the HEC chairman after Dr Atta-ur-Rahman — the architect of the numbers game. This is about a physics thesis that was guided by an ‘HEC meritorious professor’ at Balochistan University, co-supervised by the Vice Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University, and with the resulting publications paid for by the HEC. The thesis title was ‘A quantitative study on chromotherapy’ and it contained equations designed to make it look respectable. But it was complete nonsense. Several notable Pakistani physicists, who actually know their subject, said so too. After months of trying we failed to convince Dr Leghari, who refused to reveal the names of the referees.

As a last-ditch effort, I sent a copy to two distinguished physicists who I have known for many years: One was the physics Nobel Prize (1979) winner, Steven Weinberg, and the other was the physics Nobel Prize (1988) winner, Jack Steinberger.

Weinberg wrote a point-by-point criticism which said: “I am appalled by what I have seen.  The thesis shows a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of physics. This thesis is not only unworthy of a PhD, it is positively dangerous, since it might lead patients with severe illnesses to rely on ‘chromotherapy’ rather than on scientific medicine. I find it difficult to understand how this thesis could have earned its author any academic degree.”

Steinberger was equally negative: “A reasonable physics department should not have accepted anything like this work… Following world news this past decade, I have been very unhappy about the Pakistani political instability and social problems, but I had imagined that its cultural level was better than what I now see.”

Some scientists have stated that there needs to be a link between the industrial sector and higher education. What are your thoughts on this? 

Science is of two types: applied and fundamental. The worth of an applied science project can — and should — be linked to industrial development. So, for example, if there is a claim that the chemistry of this or that plant is to be studied because it is linked to the pharmaceutical industry, then success must be evaluated by the impact it has made on that industry. On the other hand, pure science and mathematics need to be evaluated differently. What is important is the contribution made to the world of ideas. While the means of evaluation are less straightforward, it is still quantifiable to an extent through peer citations.

Now that there is a new HEC chairman, what is your take on the future? Will the HEC learn from past mistakes?

The new chairman has no grandiose ambitions. That’s a pleasant difference, particularly after the wild claims made by the HEC’s founding chairman and also the executive director, Dr Sohail Naqvi. The new leadership is aware of the negative impact of past policies.

But will it be strong enough to make a decisive break with existing bad policies? I am not sure. There are countless sharks in Pakistani academia who publish a meaningless paper every few days but still mint money. They have too much clout. So, unless I am wrong, the HEC is likely to continue with bad policies — i.e. to support spurious research that the world considers utter rubbish, but which gets published in some odd ‘foreign’ journal. This obsession with publications, and lack of scientific judgment, means that the HEC is unlikely to play a role commensurate with the huge funding it has been provided by the government for a decade.

The HEC has also dealt with cases of plagiarism where PhD candidates reuse previous dissertations. In your opinion, how can we prevent such cases and what can the HEC do to weed out unqualified students? 

Plagiarism is not considered a crime by the ethical standards prevailing in Pakistani society. Students freely copy from the internet without feeling that they are doing anything wrong. In detecting internet plagiarism, software like Turnitin is useful only to an extent — it can only detect identical phrases and sentences, not ideas or equations. I do not, therefore, think there is a technical solution.

More serious is the problem of faked data. There are papers purporting to report results of experiments or surveys that one knows are faked. But it would be very hard to bring such people to task because no one has the time and energy to follow up on them. These then appear in journals that are willing to publish anything — for a price.

So where is the hope? What needs to be done?

There are some genuinely talented and capable researchers and teachers in Pakistan. They refuse to compete in this nonsensical publication race and so are fast losing out. Lest they be disillusioned and leave the country, they need to be protected from the all-pervasive corruption of academic values. Our most critical need today is to be honest about the situation of our universities and our society. The goal should be to foster academic institutions and a culture that values scholarly achievement and the virtues of honesty, rigour, correctness, originality and cooperation.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s July 2014 issue.