Rizwan Ali, a PhD scholar at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), has no plans to return to Pakistan after the completion of his degree in the next few months. The main reason for it, what he says, is a lack of a conducive environment for continuing his research pursuits in Pakistani universities.
His university, the USTC, is a leading research university of Hefei, the capital and largest city of the Chinese province of Anhui, functioning under the direct leadership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The university was ranked 12th among the universities around the world in the Nature Index of 2019, and within the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings last year (2019).
During his four-year stay at the USTC, the Lahore-based Pakistani scholar successfully completed his research work and submitted his report for approval. “The Pakistani higher education institutions can’t even think of providing a research environment and facilities to their scholars, which Chinese universities are providing to their students,” Mr. Ali tells Cutting Edge in an informal talk in Lahore.
Studying at a Chinese university or conducting research, a student does not have to worry about the costly materials needed for the purpose. The research scholars are never asked about the use of large quantities of costly materials, though in Pakistan they have to pay for whatever materials they use for experiments, he says. Rizwan Ali’s research topic was “Graphene Oxide–Zinc Ferrite/DOX nanocomposites for induced toxicity of cancer cells and imaging by the MRI.” “The study results will help find out new treatment for cancer patients,” he adds. The researcher is planning to extend his China stay for postdoctoral studies. He says his post-doc research topic would be “the Duality of Graphene Oxide-Zinc Ferrite nanocomposites in cancer therapy: Amplification of heating efficiency by magnetic hyperthermia and photothermal cancer therapy.”
The researcher, in his early 30s, says the main reason for extending his stay in China is the import of new and costly equipment by the University of Science and Technology of China for research. He believes the equipment will not be provided by a university in Pakistan even in the next 10 to 15 years and he wants to benefit from the new apparatus before he moves to a developed country.
Rizwan Ali is not the only Pakistani scholar who is reluctant to return to the country after earning a PhD degree from a reputable foreign university. Higher education in Pakistan has been in dire straits for a long time. Universities do not have funds to pay salaries and are seeking help from the government. As per international standards, at least 4% of GDP should be allocated for the education sector and 25% of the total education budget should be spent on universities. During the past years, vice chancellors held hectic meetings to work out ways to keep universities running. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has failed in pleading its case before the government to secure required funds. Its chairman has admitted in media talks that the higher education sector has at least 45% less than needed funds. The access to higher education, defined in terms of the participation of the youth, in Pakistan is one of the lowest in the region i.e. Turkey (69%), Iran (52.2%), Indonesia (32%), India (25%), Sri Lanka (17%), Bangladesh (13.2%), and Pakistan (9.5%).
MS and PhD scholars are the real essence of higher education but the degrees have been shifted off the priority list of the HEC. If the body is not for high-end research in modern disciplines, what is it for?
Rizwan Ali’s main concern is also financial issues. He fears that on his return to Pakistan, he will not be able to earn as much salary as he is getting in scholarship in China. “The Chinese university has given me a family accommodation along with nearly a Rs100,000 monthly stipend besides other facilities,” the researcher tells Cutting Edge. “And if I return to Pakistan with a PhD degree, I fear I won’t be able to get more than Rs50,000 monthly at any public sector university,” he adds.
Ali believes he would get Rs200,000 to Rs200,000 monthly stipend during his postdoctoral research in his current university, the USTC. And if he moves to a developed European university, he would be paid a handsome amount for his research and services.
Political intervention in appointment of key officials and even deans, chairpersons and professors in universities is yet another indicator of decay in higher education. Due to the intervention, many universities fail to achieve a rotation mechanism for deans and chairpersons. As a result, politically influential deans and department heads call the shots at the cost of quality in research.
Two years back, an influential teacher was appointed chairperson of the media studies department of the biggest public sector university of Lahore. An official at the department told Cutting Edge that the father of the teacher, a very influential journalist, played a role in her appointment, in violation of merit. The teacher, then a non-PhD, was appointed the department head in the presence of at least four senior PhD degree holders.
A controversy erupted at the time of admission to the PhD programme when the admission committee comprising PhD degree holders refused to work under a non-PhD committee head. The admission process for PhD scholars was cancelled for the second time. The process was earlier declared null and void after the university vice chancellor office had found grave irregularities in it. A candidate had complained to the VC office about admitting only “favourites.” It is obvious that the “scholars” getting admission to MPhil and PhD courses through a tainted process would never deliver in future.
The private universities are also not satisfied with the performance of the HECP. The universities constitute 40% of total recognised universities both at national and Punjab level (83 out of 210 recognised universities with 35 sub-campuses at national level and 28 out of 70 universities in the Punjab), have also raised serious concerns over the higher education policies of the government.
Rizwan Ali says Pakistan should learn from the Chinese, Singaporean and South Korean models of education, which used education and knowledge as a tool to emerge as powerful nations. However, Shafqat Mahmood, the federal minister for education and professional training, does not agree that higher education is being neglected by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government. “Prime Minister Imran Khan gives a top priority to the education sector and he has ordered for the provision of uninterrupted funds for higher education in the country,” he tells Cutting Edge at a function in the federal capital. The premier directed the finance ministry last week to ensure the provision of uninterrupted funds to cope with the needs of the higher education sector regardless of the economic difficulties of the country, claims the minister. He said he had ordered for the transfer of financial powers to the HEC executive director, who’s also the principal accounting officer of the institution, to avoid any delay in the release of funds.
Shafqat Mahmood says an easy access to higher education for students, improving the quality of faculty and graduates and uplifting research standards in accordance with modern-day needs are the challenges facing the HEC. The minister expresses confidence that all issues confronting the education sector, particularly higher education, would be resolved in the next three years.