The higher education development budget for Punjab is Rs15bn this financial year, an increase of around 285% compared to the previous year. However, the focus of the development budget is to build new universities across many districts of Punjab. This is a bad move as the limited allocation should instead be used to improve existing universities which have very poor standards. Employers across many industries complain of the substandard quality of graduates who do not posses the skills required for jobs. This is a huge impediment to economic growth as not only does it hurt domestic businesses, it also fails to attract foreign investment, leading to greater youth unemployment.
Raza Matin, a director at PayPro, a FinTech start-up said that there is a “minuscule pool of quality tech talent in Pakistan” and Pakistani companies are being forced to outsource work to other countries like Estonia. Many employees and graduates have to teach themselves by taking online courses to improve their ability in the workplace as most universities in Pakistan don’t give them the right applicable skills for industry.
Economist Aadil Nakhoda has highlighted this problem saying that we have failed in creating the academia-industry-government linkages, unlike India which is steaming ahead with several world class universities producing highly skilled talent. Nadeem Haque director of PIDE has mentioned that there is a broken research culture and questioned if the government should bring in rules to penalize academics who don’t attempt at improving. Both public & private universities can be incentivized by grants linked to reforms that promote quality research and linkages with industry.
The reform agenda should include minimal HEC, federal and provincial interference and instead should promote democratic governance of universities so that incompetent senior heads of departments can be replaced with academics who have published excellent research. However, there are also drawbacks to this as academics become entrenched in politics as is the case with LUMS, with loud far-left extremists decaying the quality of teaching, promoting highly selective research, diminishing the critical thinking ability of students with bias and opposing industry linkages thus weakening skills of its graduates. To counter this, the media, society and industry have to discredit extreme academics and the universities who embrace them. Reforms should also include compulsory attendance of seminars and review of syllabus and teaching methods based on top global universities and also industry recommendations. If graduates can sit at home on their computer and study world class courses online, then it is unacceptable that lecturers don’t want to improve what they teach. A large part of the development budget should also go towards building state-of-the-art laboratories and technology research centres with the latest equipment for research and development purposes. Only a select few universities with the best STEM graduates, quality research and industry linkages should receive such large funding.
Pakistan also lacks an independent university rankings publication which would help put pressure on poorly performing universities and stir competition to improve. The ranking can be based on a methodology which considers research quality, graduate career prospects, admission standards and student satisfaction of teaching. The HEC used to have a ranking but it was poorly designed and nobody took it seriously. The HEC is overly bureaucratic and promotes low quality research so should stay out of most matters following reforms and allow universities to be largely independent from federal and provincial governments. Maybe the HEC’s limited role should act as a watchdog and stop university exam cheating which is rampant.
There is little incentive to improve skills when the government’s economic plans focus primarily on three industries; construction, agriculture and low grade assembly/manufacturing. These industries create mostly low-skilled and labour intensive jobs, which university graduates won’t take. In 2011 PTI mocked Shahbaz Sharif’s Yellow Taxi Scheme aimed at providing jobs for the educated unemployed youth. A decade later not much has changed, with Shaukat Tarin’s narrowminded focus on rent-seeking consumption growth numbers, there will be little investment and productivity increases to create skilled jobs.
The federal government and provincial governments need to come onto the same page and reform higher education with quality over quantity. The political realities in Punjab require big projects for showing off, but PTI should remember that the youth which brought it to power want jobs. Building low quality universities won’t help create jobs, only add to the large unemployed youth with useless degrees.