Quality of Higher Education in Pakistan

By Raja Rafiullah

On the surface, the predicament of skilled labor market in Pakistan is a rather perplexing dilemma. Our universities churn out an ever-increasing number of graduates and post-graduate degree holders every year. They often complain about the lack of job opportunities in the market. On the flip side, those who hire, have the seemingly unsurmountable task of finding competent applicants for most positions. The issue in the country then is not of ‘quantity’, but of ‘quality’ of higher education attainment. 

Before I transitioned into my research role at PIDE, I was a Project Manager in another organization. Tasked with setting up a team of qualified individuals to do the job, I naturally put out a job posting. To say that the sheer number of total applicants overwhelmed me would be an understatement.

With a full inbox, I started screening the applications–one by one; I screened through all of them. And in retrospect I can report, most applications were eligible in terms of ‘degrees and qualifications’. But less than 5 percent were worthy of making the first cut. Ultimately, of the ones that were shortlisted only a miniscule number could write even a single paragraph coherently. I am usually not someone who criticizes the general population’s ability to not write effectively. But if those who hold higher education credentials cannot write effectively, it reflects poorly on the state of our higher education system in Pakistan. 

Recently, PIDE organized a series of webinars to discuss the issues that afflict the higher education system in the country. Of specific interest was the discussion around the HEC’s role, and how HEC has been unable to uphold quality standards across the university system. 

The criteria for faculty hiring and promotions reflects a system that incentivizes arbitrary accumulation of numbers over quality standards. As it stands, the system incentivizes faculty to publish more in often substandard research journals. Arbitrarily defined ‘number of publications’ link to their promotion and professional ascendancy within the system. Instead of conducting research to solve pressing intellectual problems, the focus of research is the accumulation of numbers and publications. 

This dearth of innovative quality research and below par faculty eventually trickles down to the students within the system. No wonder why it is so hard for hiring managers, despite the glut of university graduates in the market, to find trained individuals to perform the skilled jobs. In such a scenario, instead of pressing for more regulation and uniformity through an even stronger HEC, perhaps the better course of action would be to reduce the footprint of the HEC and the government on the higher education system in Pakistan. That is not to say that all forms of HEC regulation are counterproductive, but that we should minimize those regulations which unnecessarily meddle with operational running of universities and impede innovative growth.

The prevalent thinking that somehow administrators in the HEC ultimately know more about what is better for a student than the student and their parents themselves needs to change. The decision to pursue higher education is at its core an investment decision; and students are well aware of the costs and benefits involved. The higher education arena is basically a form of a market which can benefit from liberalization in similar ways to how traditional economic markets benefit, i.e. heterogeneity of products up for consumption, quality assurance through market mechanisms and general integration of higher education with the labor market.


  1. Challenges:
    1. How to write a job description that focuses on outcome (most are written poorly)

    2. Higher education focus should be applied research & less theoretical research

    3. Do faculty refresh every year in latest knowledge transfer skills (answer is most likely no)?

    4. Written communication skills should focus on scanning the document NOT reading the document! Follow ‘don’t make me think’

    5. Don’t tell me —> Show me

    6. Industry driven research projects with quantified outcomes!

    …..more later

  2. The writer has ignored the fact that nepotism is also destroying the job market. Where skills should meet the demands of the employers, it’s necessary to also remove the culture of partiality.

  3. Good points Shahid Khan. Although respectfully I don’t fully agree with your point on focusing on specialised & applied education for industry foremost. Creating a balanced individual with both theoretical and specialised training is important in today’s economy. Beware of this tendency in many circles that calls for replacing all general universities with technical universities. We don’t live in the typical assembly-line sort of industrial economies/societies anymore. Technical applied skills are important, but so are basic fundamental skills.

  4. You’re right Khurram, nepotism is a big issue in Pakistan. The way I see it “networking” happens in almost all countries. The issue is when a person who is not competent is actually given preference over someone who is competent. The private sector needs to be expanded in Pakistan, as I believe in the private sector one can indeed get a job due to nepotism, but if one is not competent — the job is mostly short-lived.

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