THESE days Pakistan’s professors are too busy to read books because they use their time publishing what are called ‘research’ papers and procuring PhD degrees for their students. For example, a world record of sorts was set last month by the Faculty of Management Sciences at the International Islamic University when five PhD degrees were awarded in quick succession in areas ranging from finance to psychology — all under the supervision of one person who had received a PhD from a local university (MAJU) five years ago.

Meanwhile, teaching standards continue to plummet. In the so-called hard sciences — math, physics, chemistry and engineering — this fact stares you in the face. Student performance indicators in these subjects tell of a train wreck. The best US science and engineering schools have graduate departments teeming with Chinese and Indian students but Pakistanis are a rarity. Most Pakistanis do poorly in the GRE tests required for admission.

Exceptionally talented students are, of course, smart enough to learn anything on their own anywhere. But the rest may equally well have stayed at home. Their professors have impressive degrees but poor subject knowledge and hence are poor teachers. That’s because the teachers who taught these teachers were also this way.

 Our universities need to be reoriented towards teaching and moved away from so-called research.

This has a historical backdrop. Relative to India, for political and cultural reasons, the areas that currently constitute Pakistan were educationally backward. In 1947, Pakistan had only one university and just a few colleges. It lost its best faculty members, who were mostly Hindus, to the subsequent migration. Pakistan has no significant academic tradition to look back to.

Nevertheless, like other post-colonial states, Pakistan slowly cobbled together a modern university system. Although standards were generally low, there were occasional pockets of excellence. In 1973, when I joined Islamabad University (later renamed Quaid-i-Azam University) as a junior lecturer, some departments were comparable to those at a middle-level American university. Although few PhDs were awarded annually and research publications were rare, the graph pointed upwards.

A major setback happened in 2002 when, in a bid to boost research and production of PhD degrees, the Higher Education Commission hooked the promotion, pay, and perks of university teachers to the number of research papers they published. Teaching became irrelevant. Your salary was the same whether you taught brilliantly or badly, or how well you knew your subject.

Here’s how much productivity boomed: back in 1970-1980, along with 15-20 years of experience, one needed 12 papers to become a full professor. It was then considered a dauntingly high number. Many of my colleagues crossed the retirement age of 60 without being promoted. They were the decent, principled ones who read books.

But once people became aware of a huge pot of money out there, the old system and its ethics disappeared. No one raises an eyebrow today when a student at the same university publishes 10-15 papers or more during the course of his PhD studies. Academic crime was made highly lucrative by HEC’s new conditions.

Like drug gangs in Chicago, a medley of Cosa Nostra style families now controls much of Pakistani academia. Each mafia family boss is at least an associate professor, if not full professor. He has a defined territory, avoids fighting other bosses, and plays the patronage game expertly. Sometimes he has an underboss (chota) who supervises the factory labour, meaning PhD and MPhil students. The factory outputs fakeries that resemble actual research so disguised that you don’t get caught.

The impact on genuine academics — the ones who maintain professional standards and refuse to lie or cheat — has been devastating. In particular, many young ones lose heart when incompetent colleagues race ahead in promotions, receive wads of cash for publishing junk papers, rise to top administrative positions, and be nominated for national awards and prizes.

This scam is privately acknowledged by those connected to university education in Pakistan. I am told that HEC now regrets its 2002 policy but is paralysed by fear of the powerful Mafiosi that includes many university vice chancellors, deans, department heads, senior and junior professors, PhD students, members of HEC, academies of science, learned bodies, and winners of national awards. Some chair committees and make hiring-firing decisions, making sure that no one can rock the boat.

This crime syndicate cannot be dismantled by rewarding teaching competence instead of paper productivity. Judging even one individual’s teaching quality within a single department of a single university is difficult. Preferences based upon religion, sect, ethnicity, and friendships would make such selections meaningless and create new groupings. Similarly, determining who is fit to teach at the university level is controversial. Surely one size cannot fit all. From field to field, and place to place, the answers can be quite different.

But even if there is no perfect answer the bottom line is indisputable: a professor cannot teach what he doesn’t know and has no interest in. There has to be some system for weeding out those utterly unfit to teach.

Whereas ‘knowing’ is not easily defined in areas like anthropology or psychology, minimum (or base) competencies in the hard sciences are determinable. One could exploit the fact that there are plenty of excellent textbooks used internationally which have chapter-end problems and exercises with definite answers. Being able to correctly solve some reasonable fraction of these questions could be one criterion.

Still more robust possibilities can be explored. For example, HEC could insist that all applicants to a university teaching position pass the examination requirements of appropriate distance learning courses (MOOCS) such as those prepared by Coursera, Stanford or MIT. With biometric checking and proper exam proctoring, this may be a cheap, neutral, bias-free assessment of a candidate’s suitability. Local yardsticks must never be used.

It is time to reject the grotesque distortion of priorities and reorient Pakistan’s universities towards their major responsibility and purpose — teaching. Incentivising paper and PhD production has resulted in mega-corruption. HEC’s foolish policy must be reversed even though the professor mafia will bitterly oppose it. Else even duly certified degrees awarded by Pakistani universities will soon have the worth of an Axact degree.

Written by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2017.