Reforming National Knowledge Systems: A Case Study of Pakistan

20170418 Eventpg

Pakistan was one of the first countries to implement the recommendations of the “Higher Education in Developing Countries, Perils and Promise” report through the formation of a task force on higher education in Pakistan. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) formed in 2002, has worked to address key issues, and spearheaded the reform process.

On 18 April 2017, as part of The HEAD Foundation-SMU Thought-Leadership Series for Higher Education Policy and Management, Prof Dr S. Sohail H. Naqvi, Vice Chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) discussed the challenges and strategies involved in reforming Pakistan’s university education.

Prof Naqvi began by emphasising Pakistan’s resources, particularly its growing young population, which can play a crucial part in the country’s development. However, Pakistan’s development, and its education sector was in a dismal state, and building the capacity to address this was a challenge. Thus, even if it is important to provide the population with basic, primary school education and nutrition, it was also important to pay attention to higher education. This resulted in the push to reform the sector.

Before the nationwide reform, Pakistan’s higher education saw an extremely low enrolment rate, varying quality standards among universities, no internal quality assurance, low PhD enrolment, and higher education being only limited to big cities. A task force was then formed to understand the issues and how to go about with reform. This then led to the formation of HEC, which worked to address the key challenges, namely quality, access and relevance.

Interestingly, unlike in other countries that typically had separate bodies managing the higher education sector, the HEC was one body that had all the powers to do so. This made it an extremely powerful body that had resources to create programmes, build universities, and create quality assurance standards. It also had the system to ensure that leaders are in the position to stay long enough to conceive and execute programmes.

The HEC then identified requirements to reform and areas to focus on, such as curriculum and faculty development. Prof Naqvi described the five phases of implementing the reform: from the initial big blast of 150 initiatives, the resulting paradigm shift of the second phase, emphasis on quality and equity in the third phase, institutionalisation in the fourth phase, and developing modern universities in the fifth phase.

These reforms created impact as seen in the big jump in the number of research publications and PhD graduates. However, Prof Naqvi also highlighted that growing universities and research output is not enough. Higher education institutions must shift its role to connect these to the country’s development and achieve socio-economic transformation through innovation and entrepreneurship. Thus, from 2011 to 2015, the HEC’s strategic focus evolved from access, quality and relevance to universities building economies, communities and leadership.

Looking at the wider picture, Prof Naqvi acknowledged that some issues have not been effectively addressed. For example, the Human Development Index did not improve due to unrest caused by terrorism. Also, the language of higher education in Pakistan is English even though it is not the language most children are first exposed to, which affects students’ sense of identity and connection to their homeland.

However, as universities continue to evolve, grow, and become more autonomous, Prof Naqvi also listed the positive impact brought about by the reforms. These include women empowerment, growth in science and technology, and more internationally competitive institutions.

The session ended with Prof Naqvi addressing the audience’s questions, which included topics such as ensuring quality, the language of instruction, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for higher education, and preventing brain drain.