Higher Education Reform in Pakistan

Over the past four years, Pakistan has increased its spending on higher education by more than 700 percent and the government appears determined to reverse years of underinvestment in what is widely considered to be a weak education system. Plans designed to propel the country into an era of “enlightened moderation” include the construction of a new network of technical universities and the training of a new generation of academics.

The education reform initiatives outlined below suggest the government is aware that survival in the global context requires a national environment that fosters the development of a workforce able to satisfy market and industry demands. This is especially important for developing countries, such as Pakistan, where inflation, unemployment and other poor economic indicators are creating frustration among its youth, sometimes serious enough to allow extremist elements to lure them toward militancy.

The Higher Education Commission

Established in September 2002, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has been charged with spearheading the government’s higher education reform initiatives, with an ultimate goal of transforming Pakistan from an agricultural economy to a knowledge-based economy. The HEC has a broad mandate as outlined in the HEC Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF), which emphasizes three areas of priority: quality assurance through accreditation and faculty development; increasing the relevance of instruction to national priorities through the promotion of excellence in learning and research; and increasing access to education.

While the HEC programs represent hope for the future of higher education in Pakistan, the enormity of the task facing the HEC cannot be overstated. As noted in the opening comments of a 2006 World Bank assessment [1] of HEC efforts to date: “Decades of neglect have drawn universities in Pakistan — and more generally the higher education subsector (HESS) — to levels which are incompatible with the ambitions of the country to develop as a modern society and a competitive economy. As it stands now, the subsector does not compare well with its counterparts in the region, and unless profoundly reformed, it may become an obstacle to the continuation of the current rapid economic growth, instead of becoming its main engine.”

Accreditation and Quality Assurance

“Given decades of neglect of the higher education system in Pakistan, problems related to quality assurance and quality improvement are substantial.”
— World Bank, 2006

The present quality of higher education in Pakistan is very low as measured by teacher qualifications, publications, participation in international conferences, teaching and learning, or significant research findings. Considering faculty qualifications alone, just 25 percent of the current teaching body at Pakistan’s universities holds a Ph.D. Therefore, it is no surprise that the HEC has put quality improvement and relevance at the top of its agenda. An overall aim of the MTDF is to: “establish and implement stringent quality criteria developed against international standards to assess the performance on both the programme and institutional levels.”

Previously, where provincial or federal legislative assemblies were responsible for accreditation and licensing decisions, the task has recently been adopted by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) under the purview of the HEC. The new body brings together members of academia, both domestic and foreign, with a mandate to enforce standards in higher education and encouraging continuous improvement by reviewing and developing higher-education benchmarks and quality criteria.

In order to meet these new quality benchmarks, public universities are in the process of establishing Quality Enhancement Cells (QECs), which are responsible for implementing quality assurance / enhancement policies and programs as outlined by the QAA. These Cells are headed by professionals with a status within their institution equivalent to that of a Dean, and they are directly responsible to the Vice Chancellor. In phase-I of the project, during academic year 2005-06, 10 QECs were established. A further 20 [2] are being established in phase II of the project, with the remainder to be established under phase III. A list of universities that have established QECs is available here.

Faculty Development and the Promotion of Excellence in Learning and Research

As noted above, just 25 percent of Pakistan’s lecturers currently hold doctorates, while just 290 were produced in academic year 2002-03. This means that if quality standards are to be improved, it is critical that university faculty be better qualified and exposed to better research opportunities. Therefore, primary among the new initiatives outlined by the MTDF are a range of faculty-development programs that include increased research support at the masters and Ph.D. levels; the creation of new programs to enroll more students in Ph.D. programs; increased scholarships for international and domestic graduate programs, for both students and under-qualified lecturers; and support for post-doctoral fellowships. Tied to these initiatives are financial incentives such as a new tenure-track system, increased competitive research grants and significantly increased academic salaries.

Domestically, scholarship programs are available to faculty wishing to improve their academic qualifications. Under the Indigenous Scholarship Program, more than 2,000 awards have been made for doctoral studies, and the HEC reports a 56 percent increase in the number of students engaged in doctoral studies since the program was started.

As efforts are made to improve the domestic stock of researchers and teachers, efforts have also been made to repatriate Pakistani academics working abroad. In addition, a Foreign Faculty Hiring Program has been established, designed to attract foreign faculty members to the nation’s universities.

Recognizing that the creation of new knowledge through research is the key to driving innovation, and one of the primary responsibilities of an institution of higher education, more than 20 Central Research Laboratories have been created at public universities across the country. These research centers have been created to drive “world-class” research and are being supported with major investments in information technology, such as the creation of a large Digital Library, which is providing faculty members with access to thousands of scholarly publications.

More than 333 research programs have been funded and collaborations with international universities have been strongly encouraged. Through a collaborative arrangement with the British Council [3], for example, 50 such partnerships have been initiated between universities in Pakistan and Britain. As a quantitative example of how research in the country is improving, the HEC reports that since 2002, the total number of papers published by Pakistani researchers in 8,000 of the world’s leading journals increased 60 percent to 1,259 within three years.

However, the nation’s universities remain critically understaffed. To this end, the HEC has taken some bold steps to boost the numbers of graduate and postgraduate students in the country. These measures have proven controversial, and there is no shortage of critics who express concern about the haste and level of planning going into the HEC initiatives. To the critics, the HEC is more interested in qualitative results (i.e. hiring more doctorate-holding faculty members) than qualitative measures that would ensure standards of excellence are proven and sustainable. According to academics interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education [4], there have been many problems surrounding the commission’s efforts to raise Ph.D. enrollments, and the quantity of research published by academics. These critics say that many of the students engaging in doctoral studies are academically under-qualified, and that the rapid growth in student numbers is overwhelming professors. Meanwhile, they say, much of the published academic content being published is of dubious quality and often plagiarized.

International Scholarship Programs

More than 800 Pakistani students are currently on scholarships for graduate programs abroad in engineering or the sciences — up from about 20 in 2002. These include masters and doctoral programs at leading international universities that are either fully funded by the Pakistan government and focus on the sciences and engineering; or that are collaboratively funded with private donors and foreign governments (donor preferences are kept in mind in these cases).

Pakistani students have been traveling abroad to prestigious universities in the West for decades; however, these opportunities have generally been available only to the privileged few with the necessary financial resources. Now the picture is changing and in addition to the 800 students mentioned above, funding has recently been approved for 2,000 more.

The HEC has also brokered generous scholarship agreements with Pakistan’s Western allies, primary among which is the commission’s collaborative scholarship program with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Fulbright Commission in Pakistan [5]. Under these programs, funding of US$150 million has been made available for 640 students to study at U.S. universities.

USAID began its education program in Pakistan in 2002 and since then has spent $178 million on elementary and secondary schools and $87 million on higher education. Most of the higher education spending has gone toward 1,000 domestic scholarships at the undergraduate and graduate level in agriculture and business at 11 universities.

Under a bilateral arrangement with the Australian government, a further 500 students will study in Australia under the Australia Pakistan Scholarship Program, while at the post-doctoral level, a further 255 scholars were awarded fellowships of up to a year at research institutions abroad.

Although the focus of these scholarship programs has been on sending researchers abroad, it is hoped that the ultimate reward will be in the strengthening of university faculties in Pakistan as scholarship-holders return home to work in academia. To encourage talented Pakistanis to pursue academic careers, the government has greatly increased faculty salaries and reduced taxes on teachers by 75 percent. More importantly, perhaps, a (controversial) tenure-track system has been introduced under which the salaries of teachers are now four to five times that of government cabinet members. This has reportedly created an interest in academia hitherto unheard of.

Importing Foreign Talent

For the nearer term, a program designed to attract qualified foreign and expatriate faculty has been initiated. Under the Foreign Faculty Hiring Program, the HEC has set out to recruit suitably qualified professors from abroad with attractive offers including handsome research grants and salaries of up to $4,000 a month. To date, almost 350 such expatriate faculty members have been recruited, over half of whom have committed to assignments of more than one year, while over 200 long-term foreign faculty have taken up positions. Shorter-term foreign expert visits are also being promoted and the HEC has invited experts, especially from industrialized countries, in numerous fields to provide guidance and consultation in “a variety of critical areas.”

This program has proven quite contentious, and has been opposed by many academics who claim that money has been wasted on professors, most of whom come from the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, who cannot speak English and are not actively engaged in research.

In addition to attracting foreign faculty, federal funding of more than US$5 million has been made available to build academic relationships between universities in Pakistan and those in foreign countries, across a range of disciplines. The project has been funded for a period of three years and is designed to promote mutual awareness, understanding and cooperation between universities in Pakistan and partner countries, while also improving the overall quality of education and research in Pakistan.

Recent cooperation projects include:

Establishment of Foreign University Campuses

In collaboration with universities and government agencies from Germany, France, Sweden, South Korea, Austria, Norway, Holland and China six engineering and three technology-focused universities are either being set up or are in the planning stages in different cities across Pakistan. Priority of location is being given to areas which are closer to industrial sectors and where these initiatives would stimulate university-industry partnership plans.

These new universities will be operated with the support of the foreign countries involved and they will adhere closely to the educational standards of that country, offering their own curriculum and awarding the degrees of the collaborating foreign university.

Partnership agreements include:

  1. An Engineering University of Science and Technology is being established in Karachi at the Pakistan Marine Academy [16] with assistance from the University of Technology, Troyes [17], France. The French university is leading a consortium of French technical schools. An initial enrollment of 150 students began classes in October. At full enrollment, within seven years, the university will cater to 5,000 students. Current plans call for a faculty of 400 professors, 80 of whom would be from abroad. Key faculty and administrative positions will be held by French professors. A group of 147 doctoral students recently went to France on HEC scholarships. It is expected that many of these students will return to Pakistan to take up positions at the new university.
  2. With Swedish assistance a university of engineering is being established in the industrial town of Sialkot. Classes at the graduate level are scheduled to begin next year, while undergraduate classes started this fall. A temporary campus has been established in Lahore. The Royal Institute of Technology [18] (KTH) in Stockholm is the lead Swedish university. Pakistan is financing and building the campus, whereas KTH is responsible for course content, university management and quality control. Fields of study will include electrical engineering, information technology, chemical engineering, industrial economics and mechanical engineering. KTH Sialkot University [19] will also take in 20-30 PhD students per year.
  3. Negotiations for a Pakistan China University (PCU) of Engineering, Science and Technology are at an advanced stage. The Beijing University of Posts and Communications [20] and the Beijing Institute of Technology [21] have been named as the lead Chinese universities on the project. Lahore is the likely location. Under the agreement, up to 70 percent of faculty will be appointed from Chinese universities, a number which will be reduced to 25 percent as Pakistani faculty are appointed to replace them. Students studying at the new university will be awarded dual degrees, and top students will receive funding to pursue doctoral studies in China, after which they will be required to teach at PCU. The university is scheduled for a 2008 launch.
  4. A consortium of South Korean universities is in negotiations with the HEC to establish a campus in Peshawar.
  5. An Austrian delegation held a three-day meeting with the HEC in 2006 with regards to establishing a University of Engineering, Science and Technology in Lahore. More than 100 doctoral students have been sent to Austria on scholarships by the HEC in recent years, mostly in engineering. As with other agreements, it is hoped that these students will comprise the core faculty of the new university in time. A more recent announcement suggests that the work in to construct the campus is already underway on 130 acre lot in the Defense Housing Authority.
  6. An agreement with German universities is also said to be in the works. The German campus would reportedly be located on a technology park close to the China project in Muridke, near Lahore, and off an under-construction expressway connecting Lahore to Sialkot.

Increasing Access

Rapid population growth has led to heavy economic demands on the national budget, and therefore increasing access and participation in higher education will continue to be a priority for the foreseeable future. Therefore, an ambitious program was launched in recent years to increase the number of university places available in Pakistan. The program has resulted in university enrollment increases of over 40 percent, and as an indication of future solutions to overcrowding and capacity shortages, distance learning programs have increased by almost 20 percent since 2003.

To cater to increased enrollments, not only are faculty standards being targeted but physical infrastructure is also a priority. To date, 13 new universities have been granted charters, mostly in areas where higher education opportunities were hitherto scarce. However, there has been widespread criticism that many of the newly created universities lack basic infrastructure and qualified faculty. Recognizing that new universities were compromising standards, the HEC announced in early 2006 that public universities would be shut down or face budget cuts if they failed to meet standards in infrastructure and in faculty appointments and promotions.

One remedy for less developed areas, and geographically remote cities and villages, is distance learning. The commission is therefore expanding the programs of the Virtual University of Pakistan [22] as well as those of the Allama Iqbal Open University [23]. It is hoped that with increased access to distance learning tools graduate and postgraduate opportunities will be available to a larger portion of society and at greatly reduced costs.


Pakistan’s long-term and short-term need to build academic expertise is pressing and recent government efforts are ambitious; however, it remains to be seen if they have been sufficiently well thought out or if they will be properly implemented, and indeed if the current political climate will allow the efforts of the HEC to achieve their full potential.