July Issue 2014

By | Education | Published 5 years ago

Within the last decade, Pakistan has seen a sudden rise in the number of PhDs it produces. In 2002, the country’s higher education institutes shifted gears and the total output of PhDs was nearly 4,000 — a significantly high number considering the fact that only 3,321 PhDs emerged during the first 55 years of the country’s existence.

The reformation of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002 by  Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, former minister of Science and Technology and former chairman of the HEC, helped develop new strategies for Pakistan’s higher education institutes. The HEC offered new scholarship schemes, approved more research grants, and invited foreign faculty to mentor PhD candidates. This has increased the number of students earning PhDs within the last 10 years, and academic institutes across the country are expected to award even more in the next three years.

However, with the dramatic rise of PhDs taking place (mostly within the sciences), an important question emerges: What is the future of these incoming doctorates in Pakistan? Will they be able to take full advantage of their qualifications in a country where there is uncertainty and economic instability?

According to a study titled ‘The PhD Factory,’ published in Nature — a renowned, international science journal — this recent trend is visible globally and “the growth shows no signs of slowing: most countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth. But in much of the world, science PhD graduates may never get a chance to take full advantage of their qualifications.”

The study goes on to state: “In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and although a few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it.”

Dr Mariam Sultana

Dr Mariam Sultana

Is Pakistan also in the process of producing more scientists than it can absorb? Do we have enough academic positions and research jobs to accommodate the incoming stream of scientists? According to Dr Mariam Sultana, the country’s first female astrophysicist and a professor at Karachi’s Urdu University, Pakistan might be a different case altogether and the rise in PhDs might just help create a demand for scientists within the industrial sector.

“We’ve never had a trend like this before,” says Sultana. “Now that there are a lot more scientists, people might become aware of what PhDs can do for them. We have the research skills to help create knowledge and I think we’re in the process of creating a market where PhDs will be needed and supported not only by academic institutions, but by the industrial sector as well.”

As for academic positions, Dr Anwar Nasim — a molecular geneticist and the Secretary General of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences in Islamabad — believes that there will always be a need for qualified faculty members at universities. Currently, there are 150 higher education institutes throughout Pakistan, and according to Nasim, we’ll see more in the near future, which means there will be an ongoing need for qualified professors. However, he believes that at this point it is difficult to determine the future of Pakistan’s upcoming scientists. “We need qualified scientists in every field and that includes biotechnology, agriculture and the social sciences,” says Nasim. “But if we don’t have adequate market data that identifies which part of the industrial sector requires researchers and scientists, then blindly awarding more and more PhDs is largely useless.”

Instead, Nasim suggests that Pakistan should create incentives for specialisation in other forms that are also in demand, especially within the field of technology.

Reportedly, India is confronted with a shortage of PhDs and aims to produce 20,000 PhDs every year by 2020 to keep up with its growing economy. Currently, they produce nearly 8,900 PhDs a year. But the incentive to enroll in a lengthy PhD programme seems to be losing its appeal. Instead, students are aiming for well-paid jobs in the industrial sector and for that, a Masters or even a Bachelors degree is enough.

Germany, on the other hand, is Europe’s biggest producer of doctoral graduates, churning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. In order to deal with its oversupply problem, a PhD in Germany is now marketed as ‘advanced training’ not only for academia, but also for the wider workforce. And their solution seems to be working.

The problem for incoming PhDs in Pakistan, however, doesn’t seem to be an uncertain job market and an oversupply of scientists. According to Dr Nasim and Dr Sultana, in order for Pakistan to benefit from the PhDs it is producing, the missing link between the industrial sector, the government and higher education institutions needs to be established.

Dr-Anwar-Nasim-2-584x389

Dr Anwar Nasim

“We need an integrated policy that identifies which areas within the market require researchers,” says Nasim. And this can only happen if there is support from the government and the industrial sector. This sentiment is also shared by Dr Syed Mohammad Hasnain — an allergologist and chairman of the Special Committee on Aeroallergens at the World Allergy Organisation.

“Private companies, such as pharmaceuticals, earning billions of rupees per product, also need to play a significant part by providing jobs and funds to PhDs,” remarks Hasnain.

The Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is one platform that brings the government, industries and higher education institutes together and requires highly skilled researchers. One of their objectives is “to conduct research and development work on problems faced by the industrial sector.” Other agencies that require high-skilled and qualified researchers include the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, the Pakistan Academy of Sciences and the Karachi Nuclear Power Complex.

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Dr Syed Mohammad Hasnain

In 2012, HEC’s Executive Director, Dr Sohail Naqvi was very optimistic about the high number of PhDs Pakistan is producing. He stated that “these researchers, who have worked on problems of crucial importance to Pakistan, will play a leading role in the production of knowledge with a potential to take Pakistan into the ranks of developed nations.”

The rising number of doctorates is a major step forward for Pakistan, but whether the country will be able to absorb them in the workforce and utilise their potential gainfully remains to be seen.

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