Dawn Editorial 23 January 2021

New PhD policy

EARLIER in the week, the HEC chairman announced several changes for undergraduate and PhD degrees in the country. Under the new policies, the two-year BA/BSc and MA/MSc programmes would stop being optional and be phased out, while a four-year BS programme would be offered in their stead. The more significant policy change, however, affects the admission criteria of the PhD programmes offered in the country. The minimum requirement for years of study for admission to a PhD programme has been reduced from 18 to 16. Through this, the requirement for obtaining an MPhil degree to pursue a doctorate degree has also been waived; students can now apply for a PhD programme directly after completing a four-year BS degree. However, students who obtain admission to a PhD programme after completing their BS degree will have to put in more credit hours of work as compared to those holding an MPhil degree.
Not everyone has welcomed these changes which have drawn criticism from teachers’ and lecturers’ associations. The Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association has voiced its concerns, pointing out that the new policies would reduce the quality of research, which an MPhil degree focuses on, and also imperil students’ prospects of admission to PhD programmes in foreign universities where a Bachelor’s degree from Pakistani educational institutes is often not accepted. What has also been underscored is the failure of the government to take the viewpoint of academic circles into consideration. It is an open secret that the existing higher education and research culture in the country is nowhere near where it should be. According to the HEC chairman, the new changes have been introduced to address the disparity between the country’s higher education system and industry where an average graduate has few marketable skills. However, for any new policy to work, a much larger debate is needed on the issue, along with efforts to address the many deep-rooted structural problems of higher education in the country.



Power price hike

ALREADY struggling to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and rising food prices, consumers received yet another rude shock when the government increased the unified base power tariff of distribution companies by a whopping 15pc. Even though the government had been dropping hints about hiking the tariff ever since it resumed talks with the IMF for the revival of the suspended $6bn loan deal, low-middle-income consumers have reeled from the announcement. Another electricity tariff increase is expected in April. The across-the-board electricity price hike of Rs1.95 per unit, which is estimated to put an additional burden of Rs200bn on consumers, will likely help the government pay the growing compulsory capacity payments — the fixed costs of the power producers — and is expected to slow down the circular debt.
However, rather than owning the decision, the ruling PTI has put the entire blame for the tariff increase on the previous PML-N administration. Indeed, the latter is largely responsible for ordering excessive and expensive new generation on the basis of an exaggerated forecast regarding electricity consumption and without cleaning up the mess in the power sector. But that doesn’t absolve the PTI administration of its own failure to fix the power sector in the last two and a half years. Its predecessor may have left ‘landmines’ for it as PTI ministers claim. But what stopped it from clearing those landmines instead of blowing them up in the face of the people? The government owes an explanation to consumers who have been asked to foot the bill for its own poor performance.
The decision to increase electricity rates is yet another reminder that the crumbling power sector needs urgent reforms — not the kind of reforms focused on passing on the costs of the power sector’s inefficiencies to consumers, but those that will aim at reducing T&D losses, increasing recovery of bills, and curbing power theft through improved governance. Sadly, the few gains made under the previous government in slashing system losses and improving bill recovery have been reversed in the last two years. The losses have increased by about 1.5pc and bill recovery has reduced by 5pc. Little wonder then that the circular debt has ballooned to Rs2.3tr (and is anticipated to grow to Rs2.8tr by the end of this fiscal) from Rs1.1tr when the PTI took over. The government says it is implementing a raft of measures to control compulsory capacity payments to power producers. These include negotiation with the sponsors of upcoming generation projects of 10,000 MW for staggering their timelines to provide “breathing space for consumption and payments”, changes in the terms of existing power-purchase agreements with producers, and so on. These are steps in the right direction. But they aren’t enough and need to be supported by improvements in power-sector governance to reduce the pressure of electricity tariffs.



Israeli land grab

WITH the chapter now closed on the Trump presidency, the eyes of many in the international community — particularly the Palestinians and all those who wish to see a just settlement for them — will be on Washington to see if Joe Biden can bring a semblance of neutrality to the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The Trump era was of course one where Israel was given royal treatment by America, while the Palestinians were treated with disdain. The so-called deal of the century, a failed Trumpian solution to the dispute, was roundly rejected by the Palestinians as it sought to reward Israel for its decades of land grabbing and violence, and limit the Arabs to ‘reservations’ on their ancestral land. However, with Mr Biden in the driving seat, there may be a change in tone, if not substance, from Washington.
Israel, in the meantime, seems committed to illegally devouring more and more Arab land and creating ‘facts on the ground’. As reported by Israeli NGO Peace Now, Tel Aviv has issued tenders for 2,500 settler homes in the occupied territories, a move that is considered illegal under international law. The development is apparently aimed at the Israeli election, due in March, as Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to cling to power and fend off challenges to the premiership from right-wing challengers by appeasing hard-line voters.
While on the record Mr Biden has condemned Israeli settlements, members of his administration have said there is no plan to reverse Donald Trump’s move to recognise the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It would be naive to hope for a complete turnaround in US policy in favour of the Palestinians as Mr Biden as well as his vice president are committed Israel supporters, as are most members of the American political establishment. However, it is hoped that the new US leader will at least temper some of the more overtly pro-Israel policies of his predecessor. Specifically, the expansion of illegal settlements must end, while Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians, particularly its frequent savage forays into Gaza, cannot continue.
The two-state solution is indeed on life support, thanks largely to Israeli impunity and America’s indulgence of its favourite Middle Eastern client. Yet if the peace process is to be revived, then the Palestinians must get a fair deal which promises them a viable state safe from the predatory attacks of Israel. If this formula is ignored, more turbulence is in store for the region.

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