Research programmes at most public university departments in Pakistan are highly dubious and purely a mockery of research. The problem lies with the very vision universities have when it comes to research and the purpose of scientific inquiry.
Universities run research programmes in order to improve their rankings in the race created by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) after 2002, whereby ranking is based on how many research publications a university has to its credit, forcing them to become paper producing factories.
Each year, in a bid to come out on top for number of publications, subject-based entry tests are conducted by many public universities for the enrollment of researchers into MPhil and PhD degree programmes. In most cases, potential scholars obtaining 50 percent marks are enrolled. In some cases, however, this cut-off point is brought lower to a 40 to 30 percent score.
One can only speculate as to the quality of research undertaken by a student who masters only 30 percent knowledge of their core subject. Each year, batches of 20 to 30 of such potential scholars are thus placed in each research-focused discipline.
An important thing to note is that a sizeable number of this batch of researchers consists of working men and women looking to climb the career ladder, as rightly observed by Dr Idrees Khawaja in his noteworthy article in Dawn, Part-time PhD.
These part-time researchers, usually working in the day and enrolled in evening PhD programmes, are more practical in handling their research tasks rather than idealistic. Instead of conducting research, they manage research. They know how to tackle this important yet ‘easy’ degree without putting in too much time and effort into the process.
Using their socialisation and interpersonal skills, they make friends with key faculty in their respective departments. Then a process of give-this-and-take-that starts. The faster and better they facilitate their supervisors, the sooner and easier they earn their degrees.
Another chunk of students consists of those who are in search of jobs after completing their degrees, wanting to productively utilise time which would otherwise be spent waiting on employment.
There is also a percentage of students – albeit meagre – who are seriously interested in conducting proper research, and this is the lot which suffers the most in an environment where actual research has no value.
The course work lasts one year, and this is a relatively easier part of the research degree. Actual research kicks off only after completion of the coursework, and this is where the difficulty begins.
The process of conducting research for PhD scholars in most public sector universities begins by choosing an area of study which interests the researcher or a problem which merits investigation. Having identified the area of research, the scholar selects a supervisor to oversee the research. The scholar then prepares a proposal outlining their approach to the problem or the direction the research will take.
The proposal is then scrutinised and approved by a committee of professors that gives the go-ahead for the research to begin. The research is then conducted based on the approved proposal and a document is prepared discussing the outcomes.
The scholar is then required to present the findings – first, in a number of seminars, and then before a committee of two external examiners for a final viva voce. At the end, the approval of the thesis by the Board of Advanced Studies and Research (BASR) is given, which then awards the scholar the degree.
This is a hectic process, as it is supposed to be. But instead of going through the process, students in many Pakistani public universities – as in other public institutions of the country – also have the option of setting up an understanding with their superiors.
It is a type of undocumented agreement between the professor and the scholar in terms of how much the student is willing to pay – or reward the professor with non-monetary benefits – to get through the research process with minimal effort.
There are cases in which the supervisor does everything for the student, from writing the synopsis, to making the seminar presentations, developing the thesis and, finally, getting it reviewed and approved. However, generally, there is partial facilitation.
Thus incentivised, many professors have more candidates under their guidance than the HEC’s approved limit. In some universities, a single professor guides more than 20 researchers simultaneously. According to the conditions set by the HEC, a supervisor is permitted to supervise a maximum of five scholars at a time.
Under special circumstances, a supervisor with a good track record of research and publications in high impact factor journals (those journals whose articles get frequently cited) can supervise eight scholars with prior approval of the HEC. In many cases, however, neither does the supervising professor meet this criterion nor is any proper approval sought.
At the conclusion of the research, MPhil students have to present their work at two departmental seminars. For PhD students, there is one additional seminar (making it a total of three seminars).
The scholar’s seminar presentations are extensively rehearsed and practiced. Potential questions are discussed and their answers explained. In many cases, someone from the supervisor’s circles is given a set of already-discussed questions to ask at the seminar so that difficult ones are balanced.
The two departmental seminars are supervised and approved by the dean of the respective faculty. One can only wonder about the logic of appointing the dean as a supervisor. Every faculty consists of many academically and technically different disciplines. Deans are appointed from one discipline of the relevant faculty on the basis of seniority.
For example, the dean of natural sciences originally hailing from the physics department has to supervise, comment on and decide whether a work presented by a scholar from plant sciences or analytical chemistry is worth approving.
Similarly, the dean of the Faculty of Arts originally belonging to the Arabic language and literature department has to analyse the concept of beauty in the poetry of William Blake presented by a researcher from English and literature department, for instance.
It is not only technical incorrect but equally embarrassing for the supervising dean. The outcomes of such seminars are quite obvious. Every seminar, after a five-minute session of questions and comments, is met with an applause of approval from the audience who are mostly graduate students and some friends of the researcher.
The additional seminar, for PhD students only, is supervised by the vice-chancellor and an external expert of the discipline. It is just as easy as the departmental seminars to deal with. The vice-chancellor has to approve the seminar based on the technical input by the external expert. This expert, in many cases, is very friendly and cooperative as they have a deal with the supervisor to exchange favours. Their facilitation today will be returned by the supervising professor tomorrow.
These external examiners are academics teaching in industrially/academically-advanced countries. There is a list of such countries prescribed by the HEC on its website. The supervisors have links with international examiners from these regions. Some examiners are either former students of the supervisors or their friends who did doctoral research with them.
In most cases, as I have observed personally, in some public sector universities these foreign examiners are ex-students of supervisors from some African and Middle-Eastern countries or some Pakistani academics teaching abroad. Many international examiners are not from the HEC-prescribed industrially/academically advance countries.
Furthermore, in many cases, international examiners selected for evaluating PhD theses are working in an administrative capacity instead of being engaged in academic activities at a reputable university.
Most of the time the foreign examiner or ‘expert’ reaches one day before the seminar and the research scholar is presented with a full opportunity to interact with and appease them. Lavish luncheons or dinners are usually arranged in honour of the ‘expert’ at the best possible venue.
Thus a pre-seminar interaction between the scholar and the examiners takes place which raises the confidence of the scholar and in most cases gives them a clue of what may potentially be asked of them in the seminar the next morning. Resultantly, the final seminar becomes more of a ceremonial formality than an academic inspection and scrutiny.
After completion of required number of seminars, the PhD scholar is eligible to submit their research thesis for further evaluation, if they fulfill another condition: one research publication in an HEC-recognised journal.
HEC-recognised journals fall into four categories: W, X, Z and Y, with W being the best and the Y being the lowest in quality. W category journals are impact factor journals whereas X category journals, second-best in Pakistan, meet all conditions of the HEC but do not have any impact factor.
Y category journals also meet all conditions of the HEC except one: peer-review by at least one expert from an industrially/academically advanced country in the respective discipline. Z category journals are short of two conditions: it neither gets international peer-review nor is indexed/abstracted internationally by a recognised agency.
The research publication requirement is usually met by publishing the paper in a Z or Y category research journal of the same university. This is not a big deal for a professor of the university. They easily can, and in most cases do, submit an acceptance letter instead of the actual publication to expedite the process.
The thesis is evaluated by two national and two international examiners. Though intended for quality assurance of the research, this process is equally managed and made hostage to the will of supervisors.
Instead of sending the thesis to anonymous examiners at home and abroad, the professor is asked to provide the names of the evaluators. What the professor does is not difficult to guess. They have a pool of friendly and cooperative examiners at both levels. They brief them and get the thesis evaluated positively within a given amount of time.
Having received positive and in most cases praising evaluation reports, the final viva voce for the thesis is arranged. Two examiners from other local universities are invited, who in most cases are the same who have evaluated the thesis locally. This oral examination is just another formality of the process. By this time, the scholar and examiners know each other very well and the thesis has already become a solved paper for the examiners and examinee.
The final stage toward being awarded the research degree is the approval by the BASR. In the meeting, it has to be decided by a committee whether a certain degree is worth awarding. One is left clueless as to what remains to be checked by the BASR after a thesis has already been recommended by four evaluators and the candidate is examined in a viva voce.
On the same topic: Enough PhD’s, thank you
The educational sector in our country needs major revamping. Solutions have been presented elsewhere and I am not going to repeat them. I also want to disclaim that not all professors and supervisors engage in such practices. There is a good number of highly committed, honest and professional teachers in all universities in Pakistan. The purpose is not to malign them indiscriminately.
Rather, I want to show two things through this article. Firstly, to highlight the negative elements present in the faculties at various public sector universities in Pakistan. Secondly, I want to draw the attention of the concerned authorities including the HEC, university leadership and teachers’ bodies toward the loopholes, faults and shortcomings in the research system that allow such elements to hijack the very purpose of the research.
Pakistan’s public education system, at the beginning, was not in the hopeless state it is today. Many Pakistanis went on to achieve great success at home and abroad after studying at Urdu and Sindhi-medium schools.
The desolate situation that we are witnessing at present is due to the failures of the government over many decades, with HEC playing an important role in ruining the university research system due to its hyper focus on producing research papers. If the problems are not addressed, the slide will continue and Pakistan’s future will remain bleak.