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.