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Athar Osama et al Publish in Journal Nature on Higher Education Reforms

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Published in STEP Blog by Dr. Sohaib Khan – Sept 3, 2009

“Massive funding for Pakistan’s ailing universities holds many lessons for other developing nations”, states the editorial of this week’s edition of Nature, published today. Nature, which is one of the most respected scientific journal, highlights the successes of Pakistan’s higher education reforms initiated in 2002, citing the free national digital library, high-speed internet access for universities and the foreign scholarship program as examples of successes.

The editorial, which accompanies an opinion article by lead author Athar Osama, however calls for more accountability and oversight of these reforms by a  body comprising of academics and parliamentarians not affiliated with Higher Education Commission (HEC). While not accusing the HEC of any serious mismanagement, the editorial points out to lack of investment in the social sciences as an example of a ‘blind spot’ that public oversight may have been able to avoid.

The more detailed opinion article in the current issue of Nature is co-authored by a distinguished team, including the lead author Athar Osama, a science and innovation policy researcher, former minister of education, science and technology Shams Kassim-Lakha, the director of Boston University’s Pardee Center, Adil Najam, Christopher King of ScienceWatch.com and Syed Zulfiqar Gilani of the Institute of Education and Research, University of Peshawar and a board member of Seneca College.

The article, titled “Pakistan’s Reform Experiment“, overall takes a positive view of HEC’s reforms, stating that “the HEC seems to have changed the culture of Pakistani academia considerably over the past 5 years”. Using data from Thompson Reuters, the authors show that the impact of papers from Pakistan, relative to the average of the field, has improved significantly in Mathematics and Engineering over the last five years. In fact, papers from Pakistan in Mathematics have 20% higher impact factor than the world average! In comparison, papers in  fields other than engineering and mathematics have not seen a significant improvement in the relative impact, which may be consistent with more HEC money targeted at technical disciplines.

At the same time, the article points out some potential pitfalls that the HEC needs to avoid. HEC cannot be the “initiator, implementer and evaluator” at the same time. Accountability of HEC initiatives by academics is necessary. The pace of reform has led to resistance by the universities, (a fact acknowledged by HEC Executive Director in our earlier interview), and HEC has not been fully successful in winning over that resistance. The attempt to produce too many PhDs in local universities may have compromised the quality of the PhD degree significantly. And leaving behind certain disciplines in the favor of others, especially critically important areas such as the social sciences, has not been the most prudent of policies.

We feel that the article is a well-balanced analysis of HEC’s performance. There is no doubt that the landscape of higher education has changed for the better, in a very short amount of time. However, it is also clear that higher education reform is a long term agenda. What is important is not how many grants are funded, but whether scholarship is thriving in the country or not. The conclusion of the article aptly makes this point:

The HEC has, over the past few years, made considerable progress. Its success, however, must not be measured by the number of grants made or PhDs awarded. Rather it should be judged on whether it is creating a culture of research — one driven not by financial incentives, but by a genuine desire to create new knowledge and to enable the broader society to reap the benefits. While that remains to be seen, Pakistan’s experience has useful lessons for other countries.

The article comes at an appropriate time, as the new Chairman of HEC, Dr Javaid Laghari takes over (see our posts here, and here). It provides an objective analysis to the new chairman, as he will take on the review of the previous policies and initiatives.

Link to Nature Article: Pakistan’s Reform Experiment by Athar Osama, Adil Najam, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Syed Zulfiqar Gilani, and Christopher King

admin @ April 3, 2010

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