Friday, 29 November 2013


Every few days former HEC officials lament the lack of funding to HEC in the context of a burgeoning youth population. No amount of money is enough for these people, demands range from Rs 120 billion to over 300 billion per annum. 

We have been on a university building binge for the last decade or more and now have about a 128 universities.  Yet a former HEC chief writes that we only have about 7000 PhDs in these. That means that there are about 55 PhDs per campus. And they tell you that a majority of these are fresh PhDs. That experienced and competent professors are few and far between.

They are also quite clear that university education has to be permanently and fully subsidized in the country.

They are very good people and well respected and far be it from me to challenge them or to doubt them. And I do not.

However, I do think that HEC is working on a flawed model. Let us see how.

First, let us review what a university is. When most of us chose a university a building was the last thing that we had in mind. It was professors and brand name professors at that. How did you recognize a professor? By the research, ideas associated with her name, the books published, the journal articles published. Professors are like stars of a university and are cultivated as such by university administration. 

Take for example LSE, or Imperial College or Columbia University or even MIT. None of these have large campuses which sprawling lawns and huge empty buildings. LSE for example has no green patch. It is a set of buildings in the heart of London that is all. Yet it competes for the top professors in the world hiring from India, Australia even Pakistan.

HEC has been building buildings and large campuses, leaving professors for last.  Could it not be that some of the building money could have been used to get better professors?

Second HEC has bottom up approach to building a faculty—the same model that has been in place for the last 65 years. We have been sending people for PhDs for the last 65 years in the hope that it will build faculty. Moeen Qureshi went abroad in the same hope as did Mahbub ul Haq. The record has been terrible. Few return, those who do, depreciate their skills rapidly and become a part of the bureaucracy seeking to preserve rents.

Elsewhere in the world the approach has been top down. Universities build faculty around academic stars. For example, Columbia hired Jeff Sachs at a large salary and gave him a whole institute. It is the senior faculty that develops the culture of research, building workshops seminars and public lectures. Their work attracts fresh PhDs who serve as apprentices and over tiem graduate to professorships. Universities spend serious time and effort to hire brand names and then give them serious resources to build departments and centers around them to let this process evolve.

Merely sending thousands of students for PhDs is a mindless, blunderbuss approach and is unlikely to yield results. Besides why do we not learn from failure? This model failed in the past, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Why will it succeed now?

Third, HEC seems to be working on a model that all faculty must be Pakistani. Hence they are sending large number for PhDs abroad. Most successful university systems are fully globalized. The best professors can virtually go anywhere in the world. Universities woo them. Most successful departments in universities sport all nationalities. Why is it that all Pakistani universities we see only Pakistanis (mostly Punjabis)? This is part of the HEC model.

Fourth, HEC has an outmoded bureaucratic process for hiring faculty and VCs. 
They want to sit on a pedestal and wait for applications for professors and vice chancellors. The rest of the world gave that up a long time ago. Possibly they never adopted this silly system where bureaucrats sit in judgment on serious academics. Universities are seeking serious professors for these positions. The woo them through search committees, invitations, sweeteners such as research grants, research assistants, choice of course and research centers etc. The point is to attract someone not hire a menial through some vague interview process. Obviously, this method rules out the best and those who will not subject themselves to this bureaucracy. And those are probably the best.

Fifth, HEC is stuck in a management model from the Model T era. They are still counting publications and research in numbers rather than quality. Ronald Coase Nobel Laureate who just died recently at age 102 was one of the most respected law and economics professor in the world. But he only had about a dozen 
publications. HEC would not even have qualified him for a professor.

He was also an economist with a position in the law school at the University of Chicago as a professor in Law and Economics. Would HEC allow that or would bureaucracy have stifled a fine mind like Coase?

Sixth, the issue of funding and subsidy has to be faced. Should we follow the current model that seeks to give an across the board subsidy to all or should the subsidy target only needy students?

Can universities raise some of their own funding? The state has given many of them prime land. Can this land bank not be used to develop an endowment?
HEC approaches the issue of funding and subsidy emotionally and not like cold hearted analysts to seek the best way forward.

We all agree that higher education should be subsidized and we all agree that research should be funded by government. The issue is that the state will only be able to provide so much. The university system must be savvy and learn to manage business plans that include state subsidy, raise resources, develop endowments and provide quality research and education.

To do this university management must be professional and not based in grades. Has HEC built serious university management? It is not even on the radar. They are still operating the system in government grades where registrars are in grade 20. Maybe this outmoded system of registrars and grade 20 also needs revision.

Lastly, universities are made by people with commitment. They self-select themselves into universities because they want to build world class institutions. How they are found, incentivized and retained is a large part of the university culture. It is clear that a top down bureaucracy will not empower such people. 
The model that does allow this to happen is a much decentralized system of university management. HEC works on a centralized model. 

HEC should listen to its critics. There are very few research-minded people in Pakistan and most of them have been critical of HEC. Instead of listening to them engaging them and seeing how we can all move forward together, HEC becomes defensive. 

It is time for maturity. Education is too serious a business to be left to an agency or ministry. It should always be subject of debate and HEC should be encouraging it.