WASHINGTON DC, July 15, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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A Strong Rejoinder to Dr Hoodbhoy by HEC

Dr. S. Sohail H. Naqvi

ISLAMABAD, July 15: Corruption. Dishonesty. Incompetence. Cronyism. These are only a few of the very serious charges laid by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy at the door of the Higher Education Commission. One would expect such charges to be fully substantiated, especially when made by a distinguished academic. Unfortunately, Professor Hoodbhoy does not seem to believe in research any more.

Let us start with Dr. Hoodbhoy’s dramatic announcement that HEC’s projects are riddled with “gross administrative incompetence.” As proof, Dr. Hoodbhoy refers to the “Best University Teacher” program. Please note that Dr. Hoodbhoy has no objection to the project itself, merely to the manner in which it is being implemented. But what is this highly objectionable course adopted by the HEC?

Admittedly, the HEC selects the “best” university teachers on the basis of nominations received
from university administrations. But those administrators are not supposed to make nominations based upon their personal whims. Instead, those nominations are required to be made on the basis of numerous factors, including student evaluations, a point which has been completely ignored by Dr. Hoodbhoy.

In any event, is the HEC’s approach really so unreasonable as to justify a charge of “gross incompetence?” Is Dr. Hoodbhoy really arguing that no factor other than student opinion can ever be important in determining who is a good teacher? Is he really saying that the opinion of one’s peers is irrelevant?

There are more than 250,000 university students in Pakistan. The HEC cannot interview those students itself. The HEC therefore has no option but to work with the existing administrations of universities to implement its programs. So, once the hype is stripped away, what we are left with is a program which Dr. Hoodbhoy admits is innovative and desirable, which the HEC is trying to implement in a self-evidently reasonable manner, and yet the program, according to Dr. Hoodbhoy, is conclusive proof of gross incompetence.

The real problem here is that Dr. Hoodbhoy sees the rest of Pakistan as a problem, not as an opportunity. The HEC, however, does not have the luxury of living in an ideal world. Instead, it has to make do with the human resources which exist today in Pakistan. Dr. Hoodbhoy is right when he says that the HEC sees existing faculty members as “part of the solution.” Unlike Dr. Hoodbhoy, the HEC feels no reason to be ashamed of that vision.

We come then to Dr. Hoodbhoy’s other example of “gross incompetence “– the Master Trainers in Physics program being run by Quaid e Azam University. Once again, we can safely assume that Dr. Hoodbhoy has no objection to the concept of the program itself since two years ago, when the project was first proposed, he demanded that he be placed in charge of it.

Once again, his only objection to the program is the manner in which the project is being implemented. But, the HEC is not in charge of the implementation of that project. That responsibility belongs entirely to the Physics department of Quaid e Azam University, of which Dr. Hoodbhoy is supposedly a very senior member.

Contrary to what Dr. Hoodbhoy says, HEC has not selected (let alone “hand-picked”) a single “master trainer.” Instead, each and every “master trainer” has been selected by the Physics Department at QAU. Dr. Hoodbhoy may be justified in his criticism of the master trainers but that is something for him, as a senior member of the QAU Physics Department, to raise first with that department.

Of course, Dr. Hoodbhoy chose to spend the last year on extraordinary leave so perhaps he was not in a position to offer his views. Dr. Hoodbhoy also alleges that the Master Trainers are being grossly overpaid. Perhaps Dr. Hoodbhoy has forgotten that he spent part of his extraordinary one-year leave giving lectures at Rs. 45,000 per hour. The Master Trainers are only paid a fraction of that amount; but then perhaps they lack Dr. Hoodbhoy’s facility with the truth.

It should be noted that the object of this article is not to unfairly malign Dr. Hoodbhoy. However, Dr. Hoodbhoy has not given a single name of a single Master Trainer whom he believes to be unqualified. Instead, he has simply slandered the entire lot of them without bothering to give any details whatsoever.

To the extent Dr. Hoodbhoy has specific and verifiable details regarding the Master Trainers he should first try to resolve his qualms at the departmental level and if that fails, then approach the HEC. If the HEC then refuses to listen to him, he can justifiably claim that the program is a disgrace. Till such time he bothers to substantiate his allegations though, it is only Dr. Hoodbhoy who can be considered a disgrace.

We come then to Dr. Hoodbhoy’s allegation that HEC is throwing “enormous sums ... at half-baked proposals.” Dr. Hoodbhoy’s first exhibit in this regard is the grant sanctioned by the HEC for the purchase of a Van de Graaf accelerator. Admittedly, a Van de Graaf accelerator’s use for “cutting-edge” research is limited but that was never its purpose. Instead, it was always intended to be used for teaching and general research for which purpose it was, and remains, a very useful machine. Cutting-edge particle accelerators cost billions of dollars which is why HEC has partnered with other developing nations to have access to the SESAME project in Jordan.

It should also be remembered that the proposal for the accelerator was submitted by the National Center for Physics, whose board is manned by the most eminent physicists in Pakistan. If Dr. Hoodbhoy is to be believed, those physicists are all either fools or criminals. The alternative does not leave Dr. Hoodbhoy in good company.

Similarly, Dr. Hoodbhoy pours much scorn on the grant to Dr. Saadia Chishti. But, Dr. Chishti holds a PhD in education from Cornell and has been a senior research fellow at both Oxford and the Divinity School at Harvard. Her project, like any other research grant proposal funded by HEC, was not examined by HEC itself.

Instead, as per standard procedures, the proposal was sent to be examined by the focal person in that subject (normally, the single most eminent and recognized scholar in that area in Pakistan) who then referred it to other competent scholars, who examined and reviewed the proposal. That internationally recognized method remains the standard method by which HEC reviews all grant proposals. Dr. Hoodbhoy asks “how true is this?”

The question which Dr. Hoodbhoy needs to be asked is, “where is your proof that this method is not being followed?” Dr. Hoodbhoy tries to gain much mileage from the fact that some of the research proposals he reviewed were dubious. But clearly, HEC is not responsible for the quality of research proposals sent to it, only for the quality of research proposals actually funded by it.

Assuming Dr. Hoodbhoy did indeed review a proposal containing a request for a $90,000 fridge, how is that proposal in any way represented of HEC’s performance?

Dr. Hoodbhoy drops dark hints about how his refusal to fund $90,000 refrigerators has resulted in his no longer reviewing research proposals. It is a routine matter for reviewers to reject unreasonable requests submitted by scientists, and Dr. Hoodbhoy's rejection of such a request was a normal response. The item was thus never funded by the HEC. Dr. Hoodbhoy is here trying too hard for the halo of martyred sainthood. HEC has no control over who is selected by the focal person to review proposals, nor has it created any “black lists.”

If Dr. Hoodbhoy is not being selected to review proposals by the focal point in Physics, that would be the focal point’s decision, not that of HEC. It should further be noted that the focal point for Physics is Professor Dr. Riazuddin, one of 25 Distinguished National Professors in Pakistan, the Director of the National Center for Physics, and according to one internationally accepted method of ranking scholarly achievement (the “Impact Factor Assessment”), having an impact factor nearly eight times as that of Dr. Hoodbhoy.

The same shoddy approach can also be seen in Dr. Hoodbhoy’s discussion of the grant to the Allama Iqbal Open University. He notes that according to the project summary, “this work aims to correct the mistakes made in this area by a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry” and that “such grand notions of challenging Nobel Prize winners are highly suspect.”

What the abstract of the proposal actually states is that, “In our earlier investigations . . . we had found the earlier work of the Nobel Laureate Sir Ropert Robinson and two of his eminent colleagues Sir W. H. Perkins and R.H.F. Manske . . . to be incorrect.” The project abstract clearly states that the initial work was done in 1972 by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, that the resultant research did in fact show the work of the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry to have been incorrect, and that the current work is only an extension of that research.

In fact, the 1972 article by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman was one of the works specifically cited by the United Nations when it awarded him the UNESCO Science Prize. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman remains, till date, the only Muslim scientist to have received this honor. It is tempting to believe that that Dr. Hoodbhoy simply misread the project abstract. Unfortunately, it appears more likely that he has deliberately misrepresented its contents.

Dr. Hoodbhoy’s allegations with respect to HEC’s efforts to increase the number of PhDs in Pakistan is one of the few instances in his article where he actually substantiates his allegations with concrete facts. Unfortunately, those facts are all wrong.

Dr. Hoodbhoy specifically alleges that in the Physics department of QAU, as many as 15 PhD students are registered with one supervisor while in the Biology Department at QAU, there are as many as 40 students with one supervisor. The Quaid-e-Azam University has confirmed that these allegations are incorrect. It should first be noted that as per HEC rules, the maximum number of PhD fellowship holders allowed to be registered with any one supervisor is eight.

Furthermore, so far as the Biology department at QAU is concerned, HEC has not approved even a total of 40 PhD fellowships, let alone 40 for one supervisor. Instead, HEC has only approved a total of 20 PhD fellowships at the QAU biology department, which are being supervised by 10 HEC approved supervisors. Similarly, so far as the QAU physics department is concerned, HEC has only approved a total of 33 fellowships which are in turn being supervised by 11 professors. It should also be noted that none of those 33 students are enrolled with Dr. Hoodbhoy. In fact, Dr. Hoodbhoy has not published any work with a Pakistani student for almost a decade now.

It is unfortunate that the HEC’s efforts continue to be greeted with scorn and suspicion. Dr. Hoodbhoy, like many other education reformers in Pakistan, has called for more funding of the sciences on numerous occasions. Now that funding is being provided, it is necessary for Dr. Hoodbhoy to remove the blinkers of the past and give the HEC a fair hearing. For example, Dr. Hoodbhoy says that the PhDs which will be produced locally as a result of the HEC’s efforts will be worthless.

What Dr. Hoodbhoy fails to mention is that the HEC has stipulated that it will not recognize any local PhD unless the thesis has been approved by at least two eminent academics from industrially advanced countries, and the work has been published in an international journal. In fact, the quality control system that has been introduced includes the introduction of an international subject GRE before a student is allowed to be enrolled into the Ph.D. program and extensive course work both at M. Phil. and PhD levels. Dr. Hoodbhoy is well aware of these steps but has conveniently ignored these, and many other measures, taken by the HEC to raise the quality of higher education in Pakistan.

What is most unfortunate is that Prof. Hoodbhoy has ignored the largest programs of the Commission. These include programs relating to sending students on scholarships to foreign universities, post-doctoral training programs, and the foreign faculty hiring program under which hundreds of eminent expatriate and foreign scientists have joined Pakistani universities.

These are the programs that have begun to change the landscape of our universities, uplifting them from their current mediocre status. Professor Hoodbhoy claims that the GRE-type administered by HEC is worthless. But if that is the case, why are professors from Austria, Germany, France and other countries clamoring for these students? Last week alone, 92 students left for France to do post-graduate studies. Till date, foreign supervisors have expressed complete satisfaction with the quality of the students sent to them.

The Higher Education Commission is aiming to be one of the first public sector institutions to implement a fully computerized financial management system in accordance with the New Accounting Model (NAM) adopted by Project for Improvement of Financial Reporting and Auditing (PIFRA).

Already, almost all the financial record of the HEC for the previous financial year has been entered into the computer, and record of every transaction is available at fingertip. The HEC has also implemented a wide-ranging project monitoring system under which every project in every university has been physically visited, and its performance assessed against standard measures.

These reports are subsequently sent to the Finance Division, and the Planning Division. HEC also maintains the most widely accessed web site of any government department in Pakistan in which every single program is listed in detail along with results of all examinations and details regarding the award of research grants. For the record, HEC would welcome any financial or performance audit by any agency. We have nothing to hide.

It must also be realized that the entire amount of Government funds available to nearly sixty public sector universities in Pakistan do not match the funds available to a single reasonable size university in Malaysia. Advanced countries spend an average of about Rs. 6 million per student per year while Pakistan only spends Rs. 35,000 per student per year. Today, out of an eligible pool of more than 20 million people in Pakistan between the ages of 18 – 23, only about 250,000 students are physically studying at universities and degree granting institutions. This is one of the lowest percentages in the world. Is it not time that Pakistan improved this percentage?

Today, as a consequence of the HEC’s efforts and the enhanced funds provided by the government, every public sector university in Pakistan has computers, an internal computer network, high speed connectivity to the Internet, access to more than 15,000 journals and access to state-of-the-art instrumentation. Enrolment in our universities is rising at an excellent rate, four-year undergraduate programs are being introduced from Malakand to Khairpur, faculty members are writing research proposals, collaborating with leading foreign universities, going on sabbaticals and post-doctoral fellowships, and presenting their research work to the world.

Some 500 students have been sent abroad for PhD studies, Australia has offered 500 fully paid scholarships to Pakistan and over a billion rupees scholarship program has been initiated for poor and deserving students to study in private and public institutions which were previously beyond their financial means.

Over the last two years, there has been a 44 per cent increase in the number of papers by Pakistani academics appearing in internationally reputed scientific journals. For the first time, Pakistan is making its presence felt in the international academic world. Is this not progress?

To conclude then, Dr. Hoodbhoy’s diatribe against the HEC is completely unfair and unjustified. The HEC is doing its best to reform and serve higher education in Pakistan with both honesty and integrity. Unfortunately, that statement cannot be made with respect to Dr. Hoodbhoy’s efforts.

The writer is Executive Director, Higher Education Commission of Pakistan and this rejoinder has been issued in response to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy's article published on July 9, 2005

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