The impact of publish and perish culture in Pakistan universities..

A friend sent me this piece on publish and perish culture in Pakistan Univs. It is written by Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy who teaches Maths and Physics in the country.

This publishing culture has had a telling impact on the teaching:

THESE days Pakistan’s professors are too busy to read books because they use their time publishing what are called ‘research’ papers and procuring PhD degrees for their students. For example, a world record of sorts was set last month by the Faculty of Management Sciences at the International Islamic University when five PhD degrees were awarded in quick succession in areas ranging from finance to psychology — all under the supervision of one person who had received a PhD from a local university (MAJU) five years ago.

Meanwhile, teaching standards continue to plummet. In the so-called hard sciences — math, physics, chemistry and engineering — this fact stares you in the face. Student performance indicators in these subjects tell of a train wreck. The best US science and engineering schools have graduate departments teeming with Chinese and Indian students but Pakistanis are a rarity. Most Pakistanis do poorly in the GRE tests required for admission.

Exceptionally talented students are, of course, smart enough to learn anything on their own anywhere. But the rest may equally well have stayed at home. Their professors have impressive degrees but poor subject knowledge and hence are poor teachers. That’s because the teachers who taught these teachers were also this way.

There is a historical basis to this as it is will all things:

This has a historical backdrop. Relative to India, for political and cultural reasons, the areas that currently constitute Pakistan were educationally backward. In 1947, Pakistan had only one university and just a few colleges. It lost its best faculty members, who were mostly Hindus, to the subsequent migration. Pakistan has no significant academic tradition to look back to.

Nevertheless, like other post-colonial states, Pakistan slowly cobbled together a modern university system. Although standards were generally low, there were occasional pockets of excellence. In 1973, when I joined Islamabad University (later renamed Quaid-i-Azam University) as a junior lecturer, some departments were comparable to those at a middle-level American university. Although few PhDs were awarded annually and research publications were rare, the graph pointed upwards.

A major setback happened in 2002 when, in a bid to boost research and production of PhD degrees, the Higher Education Commission hooked the promotion, pay, and perks of university teachers to the number of research papers they published. Teaching became irrelevant. Your salary was the same whether you taught brilliantly or badly, or how well you knew your subject.

Here’s how much productivity boomed: back in 1970-1980, along with 15-20 years of experience, one needed 12 papers to become a full professor. It was then considered a dauntingly high number. Many of my colleagues crossed the retirement age of 60 without being promoted. They were the decent, principled ones who read books.

But once people became aware of a huge pot of money out there, the old system and its ethics disappeared. No one raises an eyebrow today when a student at the same university publishes 10-15 papers or more during the course of his PhD studies. Academic crime was made highly lucrative by HEC’s new conditions.

It has become a mafia of sorts now:

Like drug gangs in Chicago, a medley of Cosa Nostra style families now controls much of Pakistani academia. Each mafia family boss is at least an associate professor, if not full professor. He has a defined territory, avoids fighting other bosses, and plays the patronage game expertly. Sometimes he has an underboss (chota) who supervises the factory labour, meaning PhD and MPhil students. The factory outputs fakeries that resemble actual research so disguised that you don’t get caught.

The impact on genuine academics — the ones who maintain professional standards and refuse to lie or cheat — has been devastating. In particular, many young ones lose heart when incompetent colleagues race ahead in promotions, receive wads of cash for publishing junk papers, rise to top administrative positions, and be nominated for national awards and prizes.

This scam is privately acknowledged by those connected to university education in Pakistan. I am told that HEC now regrets its 2002 policy but is paralysed by fear of the powerful Mafiosi that includes many university vice chancellors, deans, department heads, senior and junior professors, PhD students, members of HEC, academies of science, learned bodies, and winners of national awards. Some chair committees and make hiring-firing decisions, making sure that no one can rock the boat.

One is seeing a similar culture brewing in India. Teaching has not been dismissed here as it has been in Pak, but has surely taken a backseat. It is perhaps a matter of time.

And then all this culture has come from the Western univs where such practices have been pervasive for a long time. We are told how the best/star professors in US Ivy leagues hardly teach. Those that do, just make starry appearances once a while with Teaching Assistants doing much of the work.

How did things come to this level? Why is teaching seen as such a bad thing in academia? Are we now just going to teach students how to do research than teach them basic principles of the subject? Why do Sapiens keep destroying basic essentials for earning more money?

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One Response to “The impact of publish and perish culture in Pakistan universities..”

  1. vikramml Says:

    I think this is not as distressing as I first thought. Higher degrees were a rarity a few decades back. In fact, it was almost a privilege and it was not as much of a job path as it is now. Just because more people enroll in bachelor’s, master’s degrees doesn’t mean that people will be more educated. The median standard might rise a bit, but the larger effect will be that the value of the degree will go down, definitely on a relative basis, if it is available so widespread and easily. The true cutting-edge scholarship will always be limited to a handful people, as it cannot be faked, is not dependent on a degree and it has always been limited to a handful of people in history. Maybe even, the majority of good work will come from outside universities or limited to <10 universities in the world. What people will need to do is distinguish between spurious degrees and real knowledge and expertise.

    This is in line with the general decline of the degree club over the past few decades. Whether in ethics, standards, true knowledge, etc. Hence the term IYI ref. Taleb. And, this is why some people are revolting against the degree-waiving elites. This pseudo-elite will complain about fake news, etc, and denigrate the people ignoring their paper expertise, but they might be missing the point.

    In the US, Europe, there are other factors like universities, professorships bending to donors, and various universities becoming idealogical prisons. But, the result is the same. Professorships are now more lucrative positions than before and like anything else, susceptible to corruption.

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