At the time of its independence in 1947, the nascent nation of Pakistan had only one university, the University of Punjab. By 1997, the number of universities had risen to 35, of which 3 were federally administered and 22 were under the provincial governments, with a combined enrollment of 71,819 students. There were also 10 private universities. The universities are responsible for graduate (postgraduate) education leading to master's and doctoral degrees in a variety of fields. Most universities have their own faculty in the various departments but many use senior faculty from the colleges to participate in the teaching program at the master's level as well as for supervising students at the doctoral level. The trend is, however, to concentrate all postgraduate work in the university departments in order to maximize the benefits of teacher-student interaction on a daily basis. This has tended to limit the college faculty exclusively to undergraduate education, which serves as a disincentive for them to conduct higher-level research or writing.
Of the 10 private universities, eight were established after 1987. Some of them may be called "vanity" universities; they lack serious standards and were established to please major donors. Before long, they were able to exert pressure on the government, resulting in the government giving financial assistance to the private universities as well.
The universities play a crucial role in undergraduate and professional education, although the actual teaching is imparted by colleges. Colleges are affiliated to the universities, which, through the Boards of Studies in the various disciplines, prescribe the curriculum, conduct the final examinations, and award the baccalaureate degrees. Minimum qualifications for the recruitment and promotion of the college faculty as well as standards for the physical facilities such as classrooms, laboratories, and libraries are established by universities, which periodically send visitation teams to colleges. In 1997 there were 789 colleges with an enrollment of 830,000 preparing students for baccalaureate degrees in arts, sciences, and commerce in addition to 161 professional colleges with a total enrollment of 150,969 students in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, engineering, architecture, and law.
The quality of education in colleges and most of the universities has come under much criticism. Undergraduate education rewards memorization and prompts students to apply their minds only to the study of "expected questions" that are sold or circulated by "experts," who speculate on the basis of questions in examinations of the previous three to five years. Students tend to rely more on examination-oriented textbooks and cheap "guides." The percentage of "marks" required to pass at most university-held examinations is 35 percent, requiring only 60 percent to be placed in the First Division. Since the paper-setters and examiners are anonymously appointed by the university, there is a lack of direct relevance to what is taught in the classroom, which accounts for large-scale student absenteeism and lack of respect for teachers.
Professional Education: The education in the professional colleges is decidedly superior. Only the very best students, often scoring more than 80 or 85 percent at the Higher Secondary Examination (twelfth grade or HSCE), are able to gain admission. It is these institutions that produce the doctors and engineers who migrate in droves to the Western world and perform so remarkably well in a competitive environment. Sometimes the percentage of professional graduates successfully moving to better pastures overseas, causing the so-called brain drain, is as high as 80 or 90, which accounts for the charge that countries like Pakistan basically end up training professionals for Western countries for a fraction of the cost and, therefore, deserve to be compensated or reimbursed for their expenses on professional education.
In the fields of engineering and technology, Pakistan has 7 universities/colleges of engineering. There are 9 colleges of technology and 26 polytechnics (of which 19 are for males and 7 for females). Their curriculum, faculty, and physical facilities do not compare favorably with those in engineering colleges/universities. Most of them give short-term courses leading to diplomas instead of degrees.
As for the universities, critics allege that they are not able to attract the best minds to join their faculty. The lure of high-level government service, lucrative employment in multinational corporations in Pakistan, or jobs overseas leaves a much smaller pool of genuine talent for the universities, which, moreover, lack the facilities and ambience for quality research. Due to such a multiplicity of adverse factors, the universities are often unable to fill all their faculty positions. As Tariq Rahman of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies, lamented in 1998:
The Quaid-I-Azam University of Islamabad, meant to be a premier institution when established in 1967, does not have many subjects thought essential to a university—linguistics, sociology, philosophy, political science, astronomy, cognitive sciences, archaeology, literature, and so on. The libraries are substandard, with very few journals—even such basic facilities as fax, e-mail, photocopying machines, computers, and microfiche readers are either missing or are in short supply. Thus, to begin with, universities do not get the best human material. In addition, no incentives are offered for improvement. For all practical purposes, once one is hired one is not removed—at least for academic incompetence.
In 1979, following the publication of the National Education Policy in Pakistan, universities followed the U.S. example and adopted the semester system. The semester system continues in the Quaid-I-Azam University and a few departments of some other universities, but by and large it has been abandoned. Students tended to take what are termed in the U.S. as "mickey mouse" courses in order to obtain better grades with very little effort. The semester system involved frequent tests and hard work, and one's grade depended very much on the instructor, who gave a certain percentage of marks for classroom participation and performance on the periodic tests. Faced with growing social and political pressure to give better grades, the system collapsed.
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