Friday, 29 November 2013


Every few days former HEC officials lament the lack of funding to HEC in the context of a burgeoning youth population. No amount of money is enough for these people, demands range from Rs 120 billion to over 300 billion per annum. 

We have been on a university building binge for the last decade or more and now have about a 128 universities.  Yet a former HEC chief writes that we only have about 7000 PhDs in these. That means that there are about 55 PhDs per campus. And they tell you that a majority of these are fresh PhDs. That experienced and competent professors are few and far between.

They are also quite clear that university education has to be permanently and fully subsidized in the country.

They are very good people and well respected and far be it from me to challenge them or to doubt them. And I do not.

However, I do think that HEC is working on a flawed model. Let us see how.

First, let us review what a university is. When most of us chose a university a building was the last thing that we had in mind. It was professors and brand name professors at that. How did you recognize a professor? By the research, ideas associated with her name, the books published, the journal articles published. Professors are like stars of a university and are cultivated as such by university administration. 

Take for example LSE, or Imperial College or Columbia University or even MIT. None of these have large campuses which sprawling lawns and huge empty buildings. LSE for example has no green patch. It is a set of buildings in the heart of London that is all. Yet it competes for the top professors in the world hiring from India, Australia even Pakistan.

HEC has been building buildings and large campuses, leaving professors for last.  Could it not be that some of the building money could have been used to get better professors?

Second HEC has bottom up approach to building a faculty—the same model that has been in place for the last 65 years. We have been sending people for PhDs for the last 65 years in the hope that it will build faculty. Moeen Qureshi went abroad in the same hope as did Mahbub ul Haq. The record has been terrible. Few return, those who do, depreciate their skills rapidly and become a part of the bureaucracy seeking to preserve rents.

Elsewhere in the world the approach has been top down. Universities build faculty around academic stars. For example, Columbia hired Jeff Sachs at a large salary and gave him a whole institute. It is the senior faculty that develops the culture of research, building workshops seminars and public lectures. Their work attracts fresh PhDs who serve as apprentices and over tiem graduate to professorships. Universities spend serious time and effort to hire brand names and then give them serious resources to build departments and centers around them to let this process evolve.

Merely sending thousands of students for PhDs is a mindless, blunderbuss approach and is unlikely to yield results. Besides why do we not learn from failure? This model failed in the past, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Why will it succeed now?

Third, HEC seems to be working on a model that all faculty must be Pakistani. Hence they are sending large number for PhDs abroad. Most successful university systems are fully globalized. The best professors can virtually go anywhere in the world. Universities woo them. Most successful departments in universities sport all nationalities. Why is it that all Pakistani universities we see only Pakistanis (mostly Punjabis)? This is part of the HEC model.

Fourth, HEC has an outmoded bureaucratic process for hiring faculty and VCs. 
They want to sit on a pedestal and wait for applications for professors and vice chancellors. The rest of the world gave that up a long time ago. Possibly they never adopted this silly system where bureaucrats sit in judgment on serious academics. Universities are seeking serious professors for these positions. The woo them through search committees, invitations, sweeteners such as research grants, research assistants, choice of course and research centers etc. The point is to attract someone not hire a menial through some vague interview process. Obviously, this method rules out the best and those who will not subject themselves to this bureaucracy. And those are probably the best.

Fifth, HEC is stuck in a management model from the Model T era. They are still counting publications and research in numbers rather than quality. Ronald Coase Nobel Laureate who just died recently at age 102 was one of the most respected law and economics professor in the world. But he only had about a dozen 
publications. HEC would not even have qualified him for a professor.

He was also an economist with a position in the law school at the University of Chicago as a professor in Law and Economics. Would HEC allow that or would bureaucracy have stifled a fine mind like Coase?

Sixth, the issue of funding and subsidy has to be faced. Should we follow the current model that seeks to give an across the board subsidy to all or should the subsidy target only needy students?

Can universities raise some of their own funding? The state has given many of them prime land. Can this land bank not be used to develop an endowment?
HEC approaches the issue of funding and subsidy emotionally and not like cold hearted analysts to seek the best way forward.

We all agree that higher education should be subsidized and we all agree that research should be funded by government. The issue is that the state will only be able to provide so much. The university system must be savvy and learn to manage business plans that include state subsidy, raise resources, develop endowments and provide quality research and education.

To do this university management must be professional and not based in grades. Has HEC built serious university management? It is not even on the radar. They are still operating the system in government grades where registrars are in grade 20. Maybe this outmoded system of registrars and grade 20 also needs revision.

Lastly, universities are made by people with commitment. They self-select themselves into universities because they want to build world class institutions. How they are found, incentivized and retained is a large part of the university culture. It is clear that a top down bureaucracy will not empower such people. 
The model that does allow this to happen is a much decentralized system of university management. HEC works on a centralized model. 

HEC should listen to its critics. There are very few research-minded people in Pakistan and most of them have been critical of HEC. Instead of listening to them engaging them and seeing how we can all move forward together, HEC becomes defensive. 

It is time for maturity. Education is too serious a business to be left to an agency or ministry. It should always be subject of debate and HEC should be encouraging it. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

TV discussion with Ahsan Iqbal

Although I was cut off, worth looking at.

Our anchors must stop favoring politicians. It is making them arrogant and less accountable.

Politicians and experts must be given equal time. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Dr. Ikram ul Haq On TV--must watch

Old narratives die hard

Dr. Ikram describes rent seeking in urdu superbly. Watch!

Although anchors took it in wrong direction. Does not matter what amounts lying outside and tax/gdp ratio.  

Issue really is to plug the problem at home which is plots/perks.

In the News today!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Why does Pakistan have no intellectual events?

I have been lamenting for a while that we do not have conferences in Pakistan but Tamashas where
  • VIPs come not to learn but read a prepared speech and receive garlands
  • The whole conference organized to please VIPs and donors leaving learning out of the picture. 
  • People are asked to present and put on stage not because of their knowledge or ideas but only to adorn panels. 
  • Stray subjects or people are put together without a clear coherent theme emerging for the conference. 
  • Speakers ramble and time overruns are frequent.
  • Debates neither happen nor are encouraged and if they do they turn nasty.
  • People from the floor if they speak make speeches whether or not they are related to the subject.
  • Audiences are thin and often consist of people who are there for reasons other than to learn.
Conferences or forums as a desirable learning activity is too distant from us. Yet part of development is to inculcate this culture. In developed countries this has been a glorious tradition for centuries. For example the salon culture in France existed in the 17th century. The Royal Society had started its own intellectual network with exchanges and meetings in the 17th century. 

I came across an invitation to attend a session on the Brain with several luminaries such as Steven Pinker. on trying to get a ticket I found this.

The hall is sold out on tickets of $180. If we tried in Pakistan we would find it hard to sell something like this for even a Rs 100.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

On developing a knowledge community

On developing a knowledge community

Farrukh Pitafi one of our leading media personalities has recently been lamenting our lack of creativity on twitter. This has been a passion for me and I welcome a debate of this. I recalled a debate many years ago that I had with Akmal Husain and Ejaz Haider on something similar and I dug out what I had written then. Here it is:
“To achieve serious reform and enlightened thinking in society, debate is essential. But what is debate? A debate occurs when several leaders of intellectual thought participate fully on a subject at a time in a concentrated manner. They actively confront each other’s ideas acknowledging contributions with the sole purpose of advancing knowledge. The audience of the debate gets increasingly involved and eventually owns the emerging knowledge.

Let us try to understand this proposition and see how we can judge the standard of liberal debate in Pakistan?

Developing leaders of intellectual thought: They stand outside the government and emerge from the universities and thinking sectors. They publish, talk and debate. For them to emerge, we need the infrastructure of high-quality universities, think tanks, forums where discussions take place, a publishing industry and a government and society that is capable of engaging. Where universities have been colonised by the bureaucracy, as in Pakistan, there is little room for the emergence of any intellectual leadership. We do not have leaders of intellectual thought for there is no process for them to emerge.

Plurality of participation regardless of hierarchy: In our feudal grundnorm, where rather than learning and achievement, hierarchy and ego derived from it are a priority, recognition is granted only to those who have managed to get some official recognition. Thus even intellectuals are looking for government ministerial appointments and when they do get them, they hide behind their title intellectually and refuse intellectual engagement. Newspapers and publishers discuss and publish government announcements; ideas are secondary. Conferences and seminars are arranged around the appearance of a political chief guest; learning is ancillary. Discussions revolve around the title and stature of the speaker and not the weight of her argument. In this milieu participation on the basis of ideas is not possible.

Concentrated engagement: This is important to all learned discourse on a subject. Participants must listen, stay with a line of argument and confront each and every argument dispassionately and independently of the personalities involved, source of publication and other primitive notions. Plato lived years after Pythagoras but made it a point to confront his arguments.

At seminars in Pakistan, people like to talk about issues relating to the current government when the topic is lunar landing. The convention of discourse is that everyone addresses the topic of the seminar; the chosen speaker of the day has presumably researched the subject and will make the presentation, others will confine themselves of short comments and questions. Not so in Pakistan: people come to seminars to make their favourite speech and will make it regardless.

Remain engaged by reading each other’s work and commenting on it: The few who aspire to intellectual awareness remain infested with their feudal grundnorm and do not submit to the rules of engagement — i.e., participation and confrontation. For that, they need to read each other’s work and address the issues raised. Recently, I tried a little experiment. I sent a few articles for comments to 10 Pakistani intellectuals that I know well and to 10 foreigners including Indians that I also know. I got no response from my Pakistani friends and considered and pointed response from 7 out of the 10 foreigners. When confronted, one Pakistani said, “I had no comments! Excellent work!” with a smirk on his face, another, “we knew the argument already.” None of the foreigners, many of whom are eminent professors, shared these views. They did not try to dismiss the work with superlatives. Instead they tried to confront the argument to see what was new and fresh in its nuances and how robust is it to alternative assumptions and approaches. All of us learnt from the second approach whereas none of us benefited from the first. “Not commenting” for an academic and a professional is not an acceptable position.

Work with ideas regardless of the author (confront ideas and not each other): In a deformed feudal society, you will often hear intellectual arguments based on criticising the writer rather than the thinking and the ideas put forward in the writing. Seldom will you hear people cite each other’s work or attach a name to a particular argument. I asked the author of a book why he had not referenced a book that some of his argument can be attributed to, his response was “I cannot quote a book written under a pseudonym.” Famous pseudonyms (George Eliott, Mark Twain, Student, even Anonymous) have existed through history and are referenced as such. But in a feudal society, arguments or intellectual work cannot be dissociated from the person and that person must be of stature to be cited.

The importance of citations and acknowledgement of contributions: In feudal societies, ideas as well as all other things are owned by the authorities. In Pakistan, I have heard people say, why do I need to cite an author when I can tell you I had thought of the idea first regardless of the fact that a written work is available? Speakers tell me that there is no reason to cite an author because it takes too much time to cite a name in a lengthy speech. It is important to cite people associated with arguments for two main reasons: first, because most intellectual endeavour is based on the reward of citation and the acknowledgement of authorship. If we take acknowledgement of the effort away, we have intellectual barrenness! Second, citations also show a body of evolving knowledge that has broad participation. This shows the audience how the subject has evolved and how various minds have contributed to it. The knowledge of such a development process and the teamwork involved develops confidence in the proposed idea. How can you trust ideas that appear to be coming from only one individual who claims to have thought it all up in his bathroom?

Engaging the audience: People often tell me that economists can never agree on anything. Obviously this stems from the lack of citations among economists and their feudal desire to show themselves as the champion of all economics in Pakistan. If the audience has to be engaged, these principles have to be followed and we have to associate ideas with individuals who developed them. It has served as a good mnemonic device for centuries and it will again, in Pakistan. But the ideas must evolve through research that spills over into debate, a process that clearly develops knowledge.

Knowledge: Ali Khan is a major professor in economics and was giving a talk on general equilibrium at the Pakistan Society of Development Economics when a retired civil servant interrupted him to say that anything other than dreaming up policy proposals for Pakistan is a waste of time. The concept of knowledge put forward was that of activism and issues and actions of government and hierarchy. Knowledge stands on its own regardless of government, hierarchy and Pakistan. The motivation is only to understand the world and the universe. Unless we pursue pure knowledge for the sake of knowledge, good things like policy, applications, and development cannot happen.

We also have phrases such as “let us be practical and not theoretical!” that is used at most occasions to kill intellectual discourse. In other words, do not research, think or clarify. Shoot from the hip! We have to accept the principle that “no research is useless and that nothing without research is practical”

To highlight this view of discourse please note that we learn much of the early Greek thinkers like Thales, Anaximander and Aneximenes from Plato and Aristotle because they cite them and confront their ideas some two and a half centuries later. In his dialogues Plato virtually confronts all the thinking of that era. He was fully engaged. That is the academic tradition of citation and confrontation of ideas.

Where we lack is the inability of institutions and/or intellectual leadership to take the enlightened concepts to the people and develop them through a process of discussion, debate and education, an enlightened endogenous grundnorm. The government won’t do it. That much is clear.”

Cities 4: Rebuilding cities for growth and development

Way out: Reforms of the FEG
Following earlier research done at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Planning Commission Framework for Economic Growth (FEG) highlighted urban reform as central to any strategy for sustainable reform in Pakistan Cities become engines of growth and development when they are allowed to function as decentralized, coherent administrative units for the advancement of commerce. To achieve this:
1.     Policy, research and thinking needs to move away from a spaceless approach to development by integrating the role of cities as engines of growth.
2.     Fiscal federalism needs to be urgently adopted for city growth and to allow cities adequate ownership of their land and resources. This must mean an adequate definition of city limits with exclusive city ownership of its resources. Federal, provincial governments, and the defense agencies should not affect city administration.
3.     The zoning paradigm needs to move away from its current emphasis on upper class housing to one that recognizes the diversity of the functions of a city. It must favor density, high rise mixed use and walkability especially in downtown areas. In addition it must favor public and community space while allowing for commerce, culture and education and other needed city activities. Zoning needs to be based on clear transparent processes based on open citizen consultations.
4.     Building regulations must be loosened to allow complex high rise construction.
5.      City centers need to be developed for dense mixed use.  Government ownership of city-centre land needs to be reduced if it is retarding downtown development. Commerce is to be given priority in city centers.
6.     City management should be professional, consultative and accountable. Cities must be able to hire out of their budgets without federal hiring restrictions such as the Unified/National Pay Scales and mandatory positions for the federal civil service. Moreover, decision-making must be based on open consultative processes.
Central to this reform process will be a much needed civil service reform without which cities cannot attain the autonomy, the professionalism and the control over their land to be able to develop. Unless the system of perks and civil service control of cities and their land development is shaken, serious commercial and construction activity will not start. And without this there will be no serious effort to start unravelling the current system of exclusion of the poor. In turn enlightened space and culture to counter the prevailing fundamentalist narrative will not emerge.
FEG and its predecessors at the PIDE have initiated the thinking on a simple reform agenda which will reduce the current high level of rent-seeking in Pakistan’s cities and lay the basis of commerce and creativity which will fuel sustainable growth. Is anyone listening?