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Academic decay

THE Higher Education Commission under its Faculty Development Programme and scholarships has supported thousands of Pakistani students both at home and abroad in pursuing higher studies, especially PhD programmes. What are the achievements of a large section of PhD qualified faculty members, and research centres heavily funded by the HEC? While the issue of the ‘professor mafia’ has already been examined in these pages, more can be said on improving the culture of academic research in Pakistan.

Currently, Pakistan produces many PhD scholars. Was this the ultimate goal of the HEC, to win only a numbers game — and if yes, then against whom? The real benchmark ought to be how many of these scholars, supervised by foreign qualified faculty with dissertations evaluated by foreign professors, are internationally recognised or get jobs in international organisations abroad. What have they learned during their studies and period of ‘research’?

Unfortunately, it appears that many of our graduate students opt to study because they couldn’t find jobs. Many of our PhD students are practising ‘incremental research’. Graduate students have little clue as to where they are publishing or why. There is a chasm between faculty and students, and knowledge is not always fully shared. Many faculty members are more involved in organising ‘special issue’ journals, cultivating links with editors and citing irrelevant literature to back up their work, and as a result have their students’ papers easily published with scant oversight.

Pakistan’s research culture is lacking in rigour.

The result? Hundreds of successful PhD graduates every year, and many of them don’t even know why, what, where and how they were published. We ought to rethink and redesign such a system.

For one, change the title of ‘supervisor’ to that of ‘academic adviser’. The word ‘supervisor’ connotes a power dynamic that is detrimental to research approaches in Pakistan, that of a boss rather than mentor. A supervisor is often listed as the first author in a paper, despite the fact that most of the academic work was done by students. Some supervisors are said to have practically forced students into citing selected papers. They insist the students comply — or find another supervisor. A general definition of supervisor is one with the authority to supervise some progress, while an adviser is someone with expertise in a certain field who provides guidance. Hence, HEC-approved academic advisers would be more appropriate than HEC-approved supervisors.

Let’s turn our attention to another important aspect. As per the HEC’s rules, the dissertation of every PhD student must be sent for evaluation to foreign professors. One must adhere to this, and each local faculty member must provide names of foreign faculty members who are ‘randomly’ picked to carry out the task. Here it is worth noting that those foreign professors can often have a conflict of interest with local advisers. In this case, how can we ensure the sincerity and trustworthiness of a foreign professor’s dissertation evaluation?

What about the role of our so-called supervisors? Doesn’t it reflect poorly on our system that we don’t trust our own academic advisers and advisory committees? Such a process speaks volumes for our lack of educational independence.

Instead of sending dissertations abroad, I propose that they be sent to foreign qualified faculty members in other Pakistani universities who are experts in their respective fields. The dissertation panel should constitute two HEC-approved academic advisers from different Pakistani universities and two faculty members from the candidate’s own university in addition to the candidate’s academic adviser. Having said that, in order to avoid looping, an approved adviser should not be allowed to participate in dissertation defence meetings more than once in the same university over the span of four years.

Last but not least, graduates from top universities (as per the HEC rankings list) generally lack ethical and professional grooming. While they may earn distinctions, medals and bundles of technical certificates, their institutions have failed to train them in how to think and behave professionally as researchers. The course catalogue for the final year of undergraduate programmes should include a three credit-hour introductory course on international research practice.

The course should focus on what research is, its goals and objectives, and details on the application and working of the international research development model. It should make students familiar with international research societies, different types of research publications and the functioning of international research publishers. Finally, the course should also elaborate on ethics and responsibilities in research.

All this can empower students and faculty members in various ways and counter academic decay.

Ahmad, Hassan. Academic decay. Dawn, August 30, 2017.

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