Revisiting the Benefits of Higher Education in Pakistan By Dr Muhammad Imran

Pakistan is in the middle of an economic (IMF negotiation, rising fuel cost and inflation), political (political instability and polarisation) and environmental (heatwaves and water scarcity due to climate change) crisis. However, there is no serious research and expertise produced by higher education institutions in Pakistan on how to address these challenges, in spite of billions of dollars being spent in the last 20 years.

The tragedy of higher education is that new universities have been established in the last 20 years, thousands of good and bad research papers have been published, with the number rising every year; thousands of local and international PhD students have graduated and novel programmes have been implemented by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). However, this knowledge and achievement have not translated into government actions and benefited wider society.

This is because a research-policy-society contract in higher education in Pakistan is lacking. Pakistan’s economic, political and environmental crises has been widely researched in the developed world. However, this research has not been contextualised and transferred to Pakistan’s governance, policy, and social environment.

Let me give the example of my own area of research in urban and environmental planning. Decades of global climate change research produced by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) shows that Pakistan must act swiftly to protect its waterways, biodiversity and agricultural soil, which are critical for human security in our country. However, this quality research has never been translated into policies for food production, urban development patterns and energy consumption. There is no doubt that new ministries (Ministry of Climate Change) and departments (Environmental Protection Authority) have been established in the last 2 to 3 decades, new legislation has been passed, and programmes (CNG cars, the Billion Trees project) have been initiated. Still, these actions are too little and too late without any robust evaluation and impact. In fact, these activities have become exercises in marketing and getting invitations and travelling to international forums.

Environmental NGOs have focused on advocacy and activism by organising walks and raising awareness. Their work has improved climate change coverage in the media, but they have failed to produce political leaders like Al Gore and activists like Greta Thunberg who can make climate change the core issue of the country. Therefore, the climate change debate is totally absent from national political priorities, policies, funding mechanisms and national media. Even Covid-19 failed to compel us to reflect and restructure our economy and budgets away from reliance on traditional consumption patterns.

The time has come for the HEC to reflect on its achievements and deficiencies, and then find ways to promote a research-policy-society contract for academics in Pakistan. The hundreds of academics of Pakistani origin working in universities in the developed world (over 100 are working in New Zealand universities and research institutes) can help to establish this contract. As a member of the academic community, I see three possible options for future action.

The first option is to continue research as usual as per the HEC’s criterion of publishing in impact factor journals. This option is founded on the hope that political leaders will take some policy action while academics stay politically neutral. The HEC and universities can also invest in new ways to better communicate the results of academic research. However, this option naïvely assumes that published research will be translated into policy and actions, which is already happening on a small scale in different sectors.

As the second option, the HEC could promote social science research and advocacy, focusing on a better understanding of why transformative change has not occurred in different sectors and how to enable institutional, political and social change. To date, the HEC’s research funding and scholarships have been dominated by natural science and technical disciplines. The research focus and funding would be extended to social science and humanities with this option. There is no doubt that social science needs more funding, but there is no evidence that exposing the powers and vested interests through social science research will lead to transformative actions within a reasonable timeframe.

The third is the radical option of changing the focus of research and associated funding to the holistic impact of research excellence. Publication impact factors, citation counts, download views, and H-indices can only be accepted if the published output positively changes society, the economy, and the environment. It would be unethical and irresponsible for the HEC and academics to publish research without making any difference in the social, economic and environmental crises Pakistan is facing now and in the near future. The HEC should consider only research that works closely with the governments and other stakeholders to tackle the societal problems through the co-creation of locally implementable knowledge. The third option is the only effective way to produce robust local research that addresses the tragedy of higher education in Pakistan.

Hope is always there but revisiting the HEC’s policies on research and establishing a research-policy-society nexus could translate hope into action.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2022.​

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