A week ago, Times Higher Education (THE), which is considered one of the most prestigious world universities’ ranking agencies, released the 2014 rankings of Asia’s top 100 universities. Unfortunately, no Pakistani universities were named in it. Contrarily, in the 2013 rankings issued by another UK-based world universities’ rankings agency — Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) — seven Pakistan universities were listed amongst Asia’s top 100 universities. When Dr Javaid Leghari, an eminent academic and distinguished researcher, was the chairperson of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) from 2009 to 2013, he introduced a system of rankings in Pakistan to serve two purposes: first, to make Pakistani universities conscious of the rankings aspect of their performance and, second, to make Pakistani universities enter into a mutual competition to offer better quality higher education to students.
When Pakistani universities were sensitised to performance reflected through the rankings table, in comparison to none in 2009, seven of these universities made appearances in the QS rankings in 2013. Related to rankings, the focus of Dr Leghari remained on three major areas: first, to build capacity through a quality assurance (QA) division, second, to enhance funding for research and third, to increase the number of research publications. After his departure in 2013, the priorities of the HEC witnessed a sudden change that is exemplified in three ways: the head of the QA division was removed, the funding pattern for research was changed and funds were spent on image building and travel for officials. Consequently, a downfall in quality, capacity building for rankings and research funding took place, affecting rankings (adversely) from nine to zero within one year. Nevertheless, there are other dimensions of the issue pertaining to the kind of research going on in the universities of Pakistan, affecting the rankings aspect. A few of them are described below within the context of the criteria of THE rankings.
The rankings issued by THE are based on 13 indicators, grouped under five categories: citations or research impact (carrying 32.5 percent of the score), research (carrying 30 percent), teaching (carrying 30 percent), international diversity (carrying five percent) and industry income (carrying 2.5 percent). Citations or research impact is related to research publications and their worth for fellow scientists of that field, i.e. a research publication is not important in itself if the results mentioned in the publication are not utilised by other scientists in that field. Citation impact is measured as normalised citations per research paper, i.e. how many times the research paper has been mentioned in the appendix of other research papers as reference. Currently, one of the best sources to judge the research impact of a research publication is through Thomson Reuters’ ‘Web of Science’ database, which has indexed more than 12,000 academic and research journals. In Pakistan, publications are still a new thing. The overall trend is not of innovation but of replication or copying an experiment that took place elsewhere in the world. For instance, in the field of genetics, the focus overwhelmingly is not on finding a genotype (and finding the gene sequence) but on finding a phenotype (i.e. the functional existence of a gene) and claiming its presence in an ethnic or racial genetic pool such as South Asia. The phenotype, unless extraordinary and exceptional, may not be referred to many times in research publications written by other scientists in the field of genetics. In this way, the citation impact of that research goes down.
Research entails three main points: volume, income and reputation. There must be at least 200 publications per year coming from one research institute. Similarly, the results of the research done should be worthy of implementation to generate income. To achieve that goal, there must be a liaison between research institutes and a relevant industry. Innovations should be such as to be utilised by the industry to generate income. That is, research should be productive in nature and should not be a waste of time and money. Moreover, in Pakistan, research is done but papers are not published, or papers are published but collaboration with neighbouring departments is not done. Solo flights are preferred. There is a large number of academic staff but few research papers are produced per year. Regarding research reputation, an issue that hits hard is the issue of plagiarism, which takes place because of two main reasons: first, the student is not ingenious enough to create new ideas to describe a given concept in his/her own words and, second, the student lacks a grasp over the English language. Consequently, the student resorts to the ‘copy and paste’ method. The immediate challenge is how to avoid being detected by anti-plagiarism software. Once that is mastered, the rest of the job is easier. After a few years, when that student becomes a supervisor, the kind of research publications produced can be well imagined.
The teaching or learning environment entails several issues. The number of MPhil or PhD degrees awarded is still low. The learning environment is still coercive (and not democratic). A teacher likes to rely on giving instructions and a student prefers to be a passive learner. The concepts of collaborative teaching and active learning are still missing. Teachers are not transferring knowledge in terms of critical analysis. The meetings of journal clubs are not held regularly (weekly) to analyse research done in other parts of the world. There is almost no concept of research writing and research presentation in the research institutes of Pakistan. International diversity in terms of both students and staff is important but it comes in the end when a university achieves other ranking targets. The influx of international students happens mostly when researchers of a university find international reputations in terms of discoveries and inventions or creativity and innovations. International staff is required when the level of research is high enough to compete with the world. The solution to all these ills lies in reviving and expediting the higher education sector of Pakistan from top to bottom.
The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org