Why quality must trump quantity in higher education
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The reckless expansion of public and private universities along with their affiliated colleges and sub-campuses, and the consequent prevalence of their non-productive and non-accredited academic units and programs, has seriously compromised the quality of higher education in the country. The consistent erosion of quality standards in teaching, research and relevance of degrees is rooted in the Higher Education Commission’s preference for numbers in its founding decade.
By 2002, when the HEC was established, there were 42 universities, including 10 in the private sector, but the quality of education was reasonably maintained. With an almost 1,200 percent increase in government funding in the initial three years, the HEC began compromising quality by sponsoring the mushrooming growth of universities in the name of access. The same pattern persisted in the award of largely wasteful foreign scholarships and research grants. Scores of unproductive research centres were set up. The faculty also began producing useless publications for self-promotion or supervising unauthorised postgraduate research for monetary gains.
The HEC was unable to ensure compliance of its quality standards even by existing universities, where faculties, departments and institutes multiplied, alongside postgraduate programs. This multiplication drive put considerable demands on meagre resources. In many cases, the professional bodies refused to accredit new departments and degrees programs. Public sector universities in Punjab opened several official sub-campuses and Private-Public Partnership sub-campuses without HEC permission. Numerous college affiliations were granted without vetting faculty and infrastructure requirements. The private sector replicated this trend more aggressively, by opening new faculties, departments, programs and sub-campuses in violation of HEC rules, regulations and quality parameters.
By 2018, the number of universities and degree awarding institutions reached 186. It is true that once in a while the HEC or judiciary held the violators to account – for example, by discontinuing unauthorised postgraduate programs and closing down unlawful PPP sub-campuses at public sector universities. However, tangible effort to replace quantity with quality began only in 2019 when the HEC made its institutional evaluation process more stringent, slashed wasteful expenditure on foreign scholarships and research grants, and implemented revised criteria for research publications.
More importantly, the HEC led by Dr Tariq Banuri initiated a wide-ranging academic restructuring program, while steering a successful transition to online education amid the global pandemic. Consequently, new policies for undergraduate and PhD programs were unveiled and the outmoded bachelor’s and master’s program was replaced with an Associate Degree Program, in consultation with the vice chancellors of public and private sector universities. Their salient features are worth mentioning.
The Undergraduate Policy spells out the learning objectives of undergraduate education based on competencies such as knowledge, skills, and professional and inter-personal attributes. The learning objectives are divided into three broad domains: general competency (breadth: general education); disciplinary competency (depth: knowledge of discipline/Major); and practical competency (understanding of professional and social environment). General education includes STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects as well as key disciplines of social sciences, arts and humanities. The policy seeks to raise the quality of education by creating a common understanding of what needs to be taught, ensuring that universities recognize the broad range of competencies to be imparted, encouraging students to think creatively about their choice of profession, and emphasizing practical learning.
The Undergraduate Policy also incorporates the Associate Degree Program for the initial two years. It is designed in such a way that its credits overlap with those of the BS program, enabling the students to move from AD to BS and vice versa. With the afore-mentioned three competencies, the AD Program aims to equip the graduates with the basic skills of employment in a variety of professions. Together, the two programs provide the human capital required for skilful employment within two to four years of student enrolment at a university.
The Undergraduate Policy regards BS as a flagship program that is designed to serve as a terminal degree for the vast majority of students, who are ready to enter the job market and do not need another degree. This is true in all Western countries, where only a small fraction of undergraduate students pursue graduate studies to join academic positions. The rest constitute the constant flow of skilled AD and BS graduates as human capital for various professional jobs. Undergraduate education provides graduates with the essential skill of knowing how to learn. This is the foundation on which all future intellectual progress is built, including, if the student so desires, acquiring a PhD degree to enter the field of academic teaching and research.
The PhD Policy defines the broad goal as attracting the best people into academic teaching and research; translates this goal into admissions criteria, including preparedness and commitment; identifies other contributors to the future success of the students, especially mentoring and guidance; and sets minimum standards for final evaluation. It seeks to contribute to the quality of education by making universities a partner in the quest for excellence, to build their reputation and the value of their degrees, and catering to the best and the brightest amongst the students as well as the faculty, in order to mobilize a community of excellence.
Unfortunately, these reforms were subverted, as the HEC ordinance was amended in April 2021 to remove Dr Banuri as chairman of the regulatory body – rendering its autonomy in tatters. The custodians of the status quo, who have thrived on the numbers game, were upset by HEC’s progressive reforms. And they have spared no opportunity in subverting this process in the past ten months. Meanwhile, quality has also been in a free fall.
During the tenure of the present government, 50 more universities have been added, bringing their total number to 232, including 92 in the private sector. In Punjab alone, 23 sub-campuses of private universities continue to operate unlawfully. There is now a rat race for opening new universities. Without enough money to financially sustain existing public sector universities, the provincial government is seeking political mileage by opening 19 new such universities.
Of late, predatory business interests have colluded with parliamentarians to bypass the provincial HEC and Higher Education Department and obtain charters for private universities through the private member bills. Since June 2021, the Punjab Assembly has passed 14 such bills and made them law. More are on the way. The same trend is visible in amending the existing private University Acts, to increase their faculties, departments and degree programs. While newly established public sector universities remain dysfunctional due to resource crunch, the existing ones are well on their way to expanding further at the expense of quality. What kind of university graduates the renewed focus on numbers, without any regulatory control by the HEC or provincial bodies, will produce is anybody’s guess?
Thankfully, the honourable Islamabad High Court has finally decided to reinstate Dr Banuri as HEC chairman, rekindling the hope that pioneering reforms of the higher education sector under his leadership will see the light of the day. He needs more time for the purpose, which will be clear when the honourable court issues its detailed judgement. Without these reforms, the ugly numbers game, or the undue focus on access and quantity at the expense of quality and relevance of higher education, will produce an unbearable national cost.