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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

PIDE: A revolutionary think tank for Pakistan and beyond!

Shahid Sattar, Executive Director & Secretary General of All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), thinks HEC's low ranking of PIDE is irrational. PIDE conducts research in every major area of development, providing innovative knowledge and solutions to Pakistan’s key challenges, and its findings are made public, allowing anyone in the world to access a wealth of up-to-date information. HEC on the other hand largely serves as a hurdle for academic development.

Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) was among 32 universities whose performance in the year 2018-19 was deemed “unsatisfactory” by the HEC. However, a point emphasized in a Dawn article in 2015 still holds true today: “The Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan should be the last institution to make public its ranking of universities”.

PIDE tops Pakistan’s research rankings and is among the top ten in Asia. HEC, on the other hand, largely serves as a hurdle for academic development. A key reason for this is that the HEC is known to directly fund research and provide capital for expansion to most of its self-proclaimed “high achievers”. Their rankings assign little significance to the factors that really matter, such as research excellence and student experience.

Conversely, the HEC prioritizes criteria that measure universities’ compliance to HEC’s dictates. Universities that conform to the HEC are thus rewarded with impressive rankings, signaling a clear and very alarming conflict of interest. Most of our public higher education institutions, whilst being established under federal or provincial laws, receive a significant portion of their funding from the HEC.

Read more: PTI’s government ends HEC’s autonomous status

This is worsened by the fact that there are no mechanisms in place to reward good and penalize poor performance, resulting in no accountability for outcomes. The HEC website does not even offer any useful insights apart from a rudimentary listing of recognized universities and their locations.

HEC’s irrational ranking process

The HEC ranking process has been considered unreliable for several years. It seems pointless to release rankings from 2019 now when 2021 is about to end, as this leads to misinformation and neglects recent progress. The HEC should at the very least commit to releasing its findings and analyses within the same year for them to remain relevant.

Secondly, the criteria for ranking appears to be illogical, as factors such as the size of campus are given priority over actual research, faculty performance, or graduate success – which is why LUMS is ranked behind others which have a much lower success rate in terms of graduate placement in the job market or further study. It is a recurring pattern with HEC where large public universities are automatically deemed better than smaller private ones regardless of merit-based factors.

Furthermore, PIDE is primarily a research body and a think tank – and among the finest in Pakistan, so classifying it in a category it is not meant for neglects its very purpose. PIDE classifies itself as a post-graduate research institute and a public policy think tank, so comparing it with universities that specialize in undergraduate courses is irrational.

Read more: Understanding the loopholes in Pakistan’s education system

It is essential to note the progress made by PIDE in shaping the research and discourse in Pakistan since 2019. There have been transformative changes in the way PIDE conducts research, and this has had a ripple effect in terms of effecting positive change in the think tank community in Pakistan.

As a frequent attendee of PIDE’s Webinars and a follower of their research briefs, it is hard to find any think tank that has the impact or an arsenal of research areas as all-encompassing as that of PIDE, particularly over the last two years.

PIDE: Revolutionizing research in Pakistan

Let us take a look at the strides made by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics since its inception, and more notably in the past two years. The institute has made a name for carrying out and regularly publishing extensive research in Development Economics in general and on Pakistan-related economic issues in particular.

There are weekly webinars that call on experts to engage the public in a discourse on current and pressing issues, all with reference to the socio-economic and political landscape of Pakistan. PIDE conducts research in every major area of development, providing innovative knowledge and solutions to Pakistan’s key challenges, and its findings are made public, allowing anyone in the world to access a wealth of up-to-date information.

Ranging from energy to exports, exchange rates, taxation, and urban planning, PIDE has a strong portfolio of research in each area, backed by experts in every field. The significance of learning and developing skills needs to take root for education to thrive, and PIDE is a thriving example of this philosophy.

Of the wide array of fresh research available on the PIDE website, a few papers that stand out include:

  • Professor-Less Universities in Pakistan, where authors dissect how Pakistan’s politicians seek to please their constituencies by building universities regardless of professors or quality. They stress upon how HEC guidelines for a university also tend to focus on brick and mortar over quality.
  • Corporate Governance in The State-Owned Electricity Distribution Companies, where power distribution sector challenges, including institutional weaknesses, centralized control, and weak corporate governance, are highlighted for their role in worsening circular debt.
  • Resolve to Revive Our Textile Sector, where the author highlights how large investment in machinery, availability of quality raw material, enhanced skill set, and product development are essential to realizing the textile sector’s export potential, along with the need for the government to resolve key issues of policy consistency and energy issues facing the sector.
  • Thoughts On Urban Resilience and Utility Services, where it is outlined how in Pakistan, rapid urbanization is accompanied by poor planning or no planning, limited and unplanned infrastructure, weak administration and governance, social variation, poverty, and conflict.

PIDE’s past webinars are also available on YouTube.

Does Pakistan need HEC?

The HEC has frequently come under fire due to flaws in its ranking system, and academics have stressed the need for the ranking to be conducted by independent bodies as per international practices. This would indeed be the best way forward as the public – and prospective students in particular – can make better-informed decisions.

The primary metric for any educational decision needs to be merit, which is the only way to lay a strong foundation for education in a country. Since the HEC has no real contribution in this regard, do we even need it? When the very organization responsible for ensuring that merit takes foremost precedence is operating based on vested interests, the whole system is at risk of toppling.

Read more: What Pakistan needs to do for Education in the next decade – Faisal Mushtaq

Rankings should be conducted by independent and autonomous firms in order to be considered fair. However, as long as HEC holds that power, it needs to at the very least undergo periodic reviews to ensure that factors such as political influence do not derail the process of ensuring high standards in Pakistan’s education system, as that is the most basic building block for a country to flourish. The value assigned to education ultimately defines the path that a country’s education system takes.

Mr. Shahid Sattar, now Executive Director & Secretary General of All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), has previously served as Member Planning Commission of Pakistan and an advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Petroleum, Ministry of Water & Power.