Pakistan's v-cs enjoy lessons even if not all are applicable

An international exchange scheme helps university leaders face their challenges. Hannah Fearn writes

September 3, 2009

"It's OK to talk of governance and planning while we're here. I'd love to do it. But at home, I can't move between two departments without a police escort."

This comment, made by the vice-chancellor of a university in Pakistan during a visit to Britain earlier this year, lays bare the differences in the challenges facing the heads of higher education institutions in the two countries.

The vice-chancellor, who asked not to be named, is one of 14 taking part in an ambitious exchange programme, in which they are pairing with peers in northern England.

But drawing up policies around a boardroom table in Bradford is one thing; putting them into practice back in Pakistan is quite another.

The vice-chancellor painted a bleak picture of higher education in his country, particularly at rural universities such as his own.

The security situation with its endless difficulties is just one problem - albeit a large one. The campus often lacks running water, and it is still a battle to get women into higher education because many poor families give priority to the education of their sons.

"I would like my university to be like Leeds or York, but I can't do it - there are a lot of external factors," he said.

The mentoring scheme has been developed by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education with the British Council and the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan.

Its objectives are straightforward: for the Pakistani universities taking part to gain an understanding of the key issues in UK higher education, and to use these to discuss parallel issues in management and development at home.

During their visit to Britain, the vice-chancellors attended a series of briefings and visited the universities of Leeds, Bradford, York and Huddersfield, interviewing staff and discussing research and postgraduate strategies, internationalism, governance and knowledge transfer.

The aim was to promote frank and open dialogue between universities and vice-chancellors and, ultimately, between the two countries. Yet in practice, reality can stymie high-minded intentions.

A. Q. Mughal, vice-chancellor of the Sindh Agriculture University, admitted that it was difficult to implement new policies in Pakistan.

"We're not starting from the same place, but (British vice-chancellors) must in the past have had the same problems we have now," he said.

"How did they deal with those problems? There must have been student problems in the beginning. There must have been culture problems in the beginning."

At a discussion attended by Times Higher Education, the focus was on the lack of research strategy in Pakistani universities.

M. Nizamuddin, vice-chancellor of the University of Gujrat, said this "seems to be a missing link in many of our universities".

He also noted that UK universities offered a wider variety of degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level, which affects the breadth and quality of research.

"These degrees generate more research," he said. "There is no national research agenda (in Pakistan) as such. Structure and culture are very important. We need to think about that and promote a whole culture of research."

Who needs the RAE?

But while the visiting university heads were keen to take such points on board, there was less enthusiasm for other UK approaches, such as the research assessment exercise.

Professor Nizamuddin said there were plenty of methods Pakistan could employ to measure the quality of research, adding: "We don't have to copy the British one."

A concern raised by a number of the vice-chancellors was Pakistani higher education's reliance on government funding.

Echoing others, Professor Nizamuddin said that universities needed to learn from institutions in the UK and "go out and find money and partnerships from industry as well".

The call for universities to think carefully about new sources of funding comes after a senior Pakistani academic warned that standards in the country's academy were slipping owing to "naked greed", which had "destroyed the moral fibre" of its universities.

As Times Higher Education reported, Perves Hoodbhoy, chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, said that institutions were "recognisable as universities in name only", thanks to an emphasis on gathering funds. "The bottom line is that how you spend matters much more than how much you spend. Let this be a lesson to those who think that it only takes money to make universities good," he wrote in the journal International Higher Education.

Ultimately, the visiting vice-chancellors admitted that although advice from the UK was interesting and helpful, it applied less to their own sector than they had perhaps hoped.

They noted that vice-chancellors in Pakistan largely stood alone, while UK university leaders have a senior management team to support them. Muhammad Asghar, rector of the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad, also pointed out that there was a shortage of quality students and staff.

UK insights

But David Lock, director of international and UK projects at the Leadership Foundation, deemed the programme a success despite these difficulties. "They've really had a chance to understand the UK sector in depth and appreciate the experience that it has to offer for the Pakistani higher education sector."

He added that the Leadership Foundation chose to host the exchange in Yorkshire so that the vice-chancellors could visit many different types of universities, starting at Bradford.

"It's been interesting to see their reactions. They are not necessarily most attracted to the models of the oldest universities," he said.

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