FOLLOWING the recent announcement of the Quacquarelli Symonds World Universities Rankings 2018, the higher education sector in Pakistan has come under much public scrutiny because only one of the country’s 180-plus universities was counted among the world’s top 500 universities — in 431st place on the list.

This ritual of public interest in affairs relating to the country’s universities is repeated thrice a year; the two other occasions being when the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) are announced. Invariably, few Pakistani universities find a place on these ranking systems — that too, at the bottom of the list. The fact that one of our universities manages to rank in 431st position ends up in national headlines.

I share here the reservations expressed by a growing body of international academics about the very nature of ranking systems. As each university is distinct and operates in a particular setting with its own outlook, it cannot be compared with another entity operating under different conditions and with a different direction. Nevertheless, these rankings offer us an opportunity to examine the ailments inflicting our higher education sector and try to identify some remedies.

Universities all over the world perform two basic functions: teaching and research. Every prominent international ranking system attributes high value to a university’s research activity, contributing approximately 85 per cent value to its overall score. In the case of ARWU, even the number of Nobel Prize winners working in a university is considered during the evaluation process.

From this perspective, if we were to look at our universities, we would find that with the passage of time most of them have been converted into teaching centres with very little focus being given to research. One may ask how many inventions have come out of our universities, or how many patents have been registered nationally or internationally by our professors. Even if some research is carried out and published, it is mostly academic in nature and not meaningful enough to bring about positive change in the lives of people.

Another curse that inflicts our universities is that of the affiliated colleges, which weighs down the value and reputation of their degrees. Most of the country’s colleges are affiliated with one or another university in their respective region vis-à-vis their undergraduate programmes. In addition to the poor quality of their faculty, their libraries, laboratories and infrastructural facilities are in dismal condition. But, at the end of the day, the students from these affiliated colleges get the same degrees as their counterparts studying at the main campuses, who enjoy comparatively better facilities and teachers. This brings the value and reputation of a university down.

Also contributing to the decline of our higher education sector is the poor quality of entrants. In essence, the higher education is tertiary in nature and rests on foundations laid by our primary and secondary education sectors. Recently, a study found that the language and mathematics skills of our high school graduates were equal to that of second graders in the developed world. When students with such poor basic education standards enter the halls of our universities, what can be expected of them?

Here, also, the basic weakness lies with our national planners and their priorities. For instance, China and South Korea initially focused on improving their school education, particularly from the 1950s to the 1980s, and then shifted their focus to their tertiary education. The result of this policy has been that their universities are now fiercely competing with American and European universities for top slots in international ranking systems.

Another factor, per­­haps the most important, is governance of our universities. The subcontinent’s first three universities were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1858, almost 160 years ago. About a quarter of a century later, the University of Punjab, Pakistan’s oldest university, was established in Lahore in 1882. Even in those days, these universities were granted greater autonomy through their more responsible and accountable statutory bodies.

While the trend in the developed world during the 20th century was that of granting more and more autonomy to their seats of higher learning, here it has just been the opposite, particularly in the 21st century! Today, political interference, over-regulation by state agencies and the appointments to key positions of persons devoid of vision and management skills have subjected our universities to a host of challenges.

It is high time that Pakistan took into account the factors that ail the nation’s higher education sector and devised a coherent policy to rectify matters. Seasonal lamentations, every time a new ranking is announced, will not do our higher education any good.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2017