Investment in Pakistan

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Humanitarian aid for the stricken nation must include help for its higher-education system, or risk undoing a decade of unprecedented advancement.

Against the backdrop of human tragedy that continues to unfold in Pakistan, it may seem perverse to draw attention to the plight of the country's higher-education system. The massive floods this summer — the latest in a string of crises in the region — have crippled the nation's economy and forever altered the lives of millions. Humanitarian relief efforts are at full stretch and the situation remains dire.

But, amid the chaos, decisions must now be made about what kind of future Pakistan can expect. The country's universities are in a desperate state and need money from the international community. At this difficult time, higher education might seem like the lowest priority for international aid, but there is evidence that providing only immediate relief to a disaster-stricken nation can, in the long run, leave it poorer than it was before (see Nature 466, 1042; 2010).

There have been unprecedented investments in Pakistan's higher-education sector over the past decade, owing mainly to the patronage of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Budgets and research output have soared. But support — and funding — faltered when a civilian government replaced Musharraf in 2008, and the latest floods have diverted more money still. Hundreds of new laboratories and projects now stand on the brink of collapse.

“Faced with flooding, recession and insurgency, Pakistan's government cannot be expected to support its universities on its own.”

For some Pakistani scientists, the end of the higher-education system as they know it would be welcome news. As described on page 378, the rapid investment since 2002 has led to alleged waste and corruption at many of the country's universities. The body in charge of regulating the system, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Islamabad, has, by all accounts, avoided impropriety. But it has struggled to police the institutions it oversees. Critics argue, perhaps rightly, that the surge of funding under Musharraf did as much harm as good.

Benefits in the balance

It is undeniable that some mistakes were made in Pakistan's rush to develop its universities. Sharp salary increases under a new tenure system left some faculty members behind and created deep divisions on campuses. Goals for recruiting faculty members from abroad were probably unrealistic, given the nation's turbulent politics. And some Pakistani scientists say that the flood of cash led to colleagues ordering equipment they did not need and taking on students purely for the financial incentives — although just how widespread the problems are is difficult to gauge.

But much was achieved. Research institutes were set up, and students were sent abroad for study. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was the establishment of the HEC itself: a well-run, well-staffed institution with the authority and budget it needs. An emphasis on publishing results directed academics towards research, often for the first time in their careers. Scientists who were capable of doing good work were given the chance to do so, perhaps for the first time in a generation.

Much of that progress now hangs in the balance. Just last week, finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh told university officials that he would not release funds for a promised salary increase, leading 71 vice-chancellors to threaten en masse to resign. The money for hundreds of research projects is also being withheld, in part because of the flooding. The situation is reaching a crisis point, and is only exacerbated by the HEC's investigation of a scandal in which some politicians have been revealed to be in possession of fake degrees.

Push for progress

The financial and political situation is making it difficult for the HEC to do its job, but progress may still be possible. Even without new money, the commission can begin to correct some of the problems generated by Musharraf's well-intentioned largesse. It needs to raise standards and reduce waste; it could start by spreading its own admirably professional working practices throughout the wider sector, and rigorously enforcing ethics rules. In some cases this may require the HEC to step in, but where possible the commission should work with vice-chancellors and university leaders. Meanwhile, the best projects should be protected from the worst cuts: the government must not allow what progress has been made to reverse.

In a country where only half the population can read, higher education does not have strong support from voters, but politicians must recognize its value. They should look to neighbours such as India and China, which have made large investments in higher education as part of their broader development.

Politicians should protect the HEC and strive, where possible, to protect its funding. But, faced with flooding, recession and insurgency, Pakistan's government cannot be expected to support its universities on its own. Among other donors, the World Bank is now considering a US$300-million, three-year loan to aid the higher-education system; assuming that Pakistan's government will continue its commitment to the sector, that money should be released.

There are many problems facing Pakistan's higher-education system. But there is also cause for optimism. With proper management and sufficient funds, the progress made over the past decade can be preserved.


  1. Report this comment #14295

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    As a good neighbour we Indian are always ready to help the Pakistani researchers in each & every steps.Besides financial support we are ready to develop joint colloborative research projects with full financial support, free of cost visit of pak researchers to indian institutions,sharing our scientific facilities etc. but Pak politicians should be ready to accept our help and keep their personal differences a side at this moment of natural calamity.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,,,+919452196686(M)

  2. Report this comment #14306

    Wesley Button said:

    Yeah..there are millions displaced from their homes and massive casualties from cholera due to lack of clean drinking water.

    I think Nature should be less concerned with the revenues it gains from pakistani research and more with the actual human suffering going on in that area.

  3. Report this comment #14324

    Atta-ur Rahman said:

    The reforms that I brought in led to 600% increase in ISI abstracted international publications and 1000% increase in citations within 6 years. Three of Pakistans Universities were ranked among the top 300 in the world in Natural Sciences (Karachi University 223, NUST 260, QAU, 270) whereas none had any rankings prior to 2003 (Times UK Higher Education Rankings 2009). Authoritative and independent accounts of the revolutionary changes that occurred in Pakistan in the higher education sector during 2002-2008 have been presented in the following articles: (1) Rode, Bernd Michael, President, United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development (UNCSTD) "Letter from Chairman/European Coordinator of ASEA-UNINET published in DAWN today".; (2) Independent US educational Consultant,Hayward, Fred M. (Winter 2009). "Higher Education Transformation in Pakistan: Political & Economic Instability". International Higher Education Quarterly (54).;(3)Professor of Chemistry at Tubingen University, Germany,Voelter, Wolfgang. "The golden period". Dawn ePaper.
    Two comprehensive reports published by USAID and World Bank have praised these developments unreservedly.

  4. Report this comment #14358

    Wesley Button said:

    Great, meanwhile people are dying all over the country from lack of sanitary water.

  5. Report this comment #14432

    yousra saeed said:

    I had been student of University of Punjab, Lahore for 6 years (2003-2009) and now doing my PHD from China as an exchange student. I am a witness of students’ condition in Pakistan local university. I like to admit that Pakistani students are getting much better education than before. I have seen a lot of development in few years; a real difference. I really don’t want Pakistan Higher education to be part of Politics by any means. Despite of all problems that Pakistan is going through these days I can see good quality higher education as an only hope. A lot of people talk about revolution in Pakistan, if this revolution rise through the route of higher education it may be slow but it will be reliable, strong and come with peace. As far as poor health and sanitary conditions are concerned the main reason behind poor catastrophic management is that there is a lack of set of people who are educated enough to foresee the situation and find a pro-solution at the same time. Different Nations are helping us manage flood disaster (which we are thankful for) but if Pakistani nation’s roots may not be strengthens enough to cope with such situations (which I think by educating the nation) we will keep looking for help forever. I believe that this revolution has been started and must not be stop. If we weigh up all the pros and cons of Pakistan Higher education commission its pros are definitely ways higher then cons. For critics I would like to say there is always a room for amendment even in a perfect plan and making good amendments is much easier and healthy then to start over again and again.

  6. Report this comment #14501

    Ihtesham Rehman said:

    I agree with Professor Atta ur Rehman, who was instrumental in developing the Higher Education Sector in Pakistan. Under his leadership, it was first time in the history of Pakistan that Education was given importance. His work for Education, especially science and technology will be remembered and appreciated by the academics throughout the world. I take my hat off to him for seeking funds from the corrupt Pakistani politicians.

    World community should help, but rather than going through the govt offices, they should help the academics directly. Unfortunately, this is the only way forward at present in Pakistan. Most of aid gets wasted due to poor governance.

  7. Report this comment #70239

    fabian castalo said:

    For some reason many Islamic countries today are a lot of chaos, is this also an interference of other countries?
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