ISLAMABAD: In my personal opinion, there should be only one Higher Education Commission (HEC) at the federal level, said Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad (QAU) Vice Chancellor (VC) Prof Dr Javed Ashraf while talking to The Education in an exclusive interview. He also spoke about the state and future of education in Pakistan.
The Educationist: Please tell us about your early life, education and higher studies?
Prof Dr Javed Ashraf: I received schooling from Sir Syed School Rawalpindi, completed Intermediate from Government College Rawalpindi. I complete my BA and MA degrees from Government College Lahore, which is now known as GCU Lahore. Later I went abroad and did MA from Boston University, USA and PhD from Northern Illinois University, USA.
The Educationist: How many academic institutions have you served abroad?
Dr Javed Ashraf: I have worked at four universities in the USA. I started at the University of Wisconsin, and later joined the University of Hartford in Connecticut. I served my longest tenure at the University of West Florida, where I spent 13 years. Then before coming to Pakistan, I served at the University of Saint Thomas, which is in Houston.
The Educationist: Sir what made you come back to Pakistan?
Dr Javed Ashraf: This was not the first time I came back, 15 years back I came back and joined IBA Karachi. People do want to come back to their own country if given the opportunity. Of course, many people who go abroad don’t come back, but if you look at my appointment I have an opportunity to do new things. When I came back and joined IBA, I introduced the first four-year bachelor’s programme in a public sector institution. I had it implemented after overcoming a lot of resistance and it was later adopted by the rest of the public sector educational institutions in Pakistan. One does not get a similar chance of bringing about such a big change while living in the USA. Similarly, I tried other positive initiatives in the IBA and now I am trying the same here. When you are abroad, you a just a small part of a large machine, here you can bring about changes for the betterment of the country. It is said that many people don’t return, but if they are given similar chances they will come back. I am lucky that such a situation arose that this position was available and I got selected here. We have many competent people abroad, and if they are given the opportunity they will come back and serve Pakistan.
The Educationist: Recently Ahsan Iqbal pledged funds for QAU; on what projects have you planned to utilise those funds?
Dr Javed Ashraf: The biggest problem we are currently facing is the lack of physical infrastructure in the university. We don’t have sufficient number of hostels, we don’t have enough academic buildings, we still don’t have a proper auditorium in the university, we have inadequate housing facility for faculty members, students don’t have proper sports facilities, so a lot is needed here. We will utilise these funds on the infrastructure of the university.
The Educationist: Are you satisfied with the ranking system of the Higher Education Commission (HEC)?
Dr Javed Ashraf: The ranking criteria were formulated by Sohail Naqvi, who is currently the Vice Chancellor of LUMS, when he was the executive director of the HEC. There are 47 variables which are taken into consideration in the evaluation process and most of these are very much justified things like the number of PhDs produced and the number of national and international awards won by faculty members. Only some arguments can be made on things like what should be more emphasised, but by-and-large this criteria is the most workable. The perfect system, which is 100 per cent agreed upon by all, is not possible. The current system of evaluation is the most workable until we can find a better alternative.
The Educationist: After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the provincial Higher Education Commissions have been formed and it is being said that provincial bureaucracies are taking over universities. What is your take on this?
Dr Javed Ashraf: I personally believe that universities should be autonomous with some oversight. I think that autonomy is essential for effective functioning of universities. In my personal opinion, there should be only one HEC at the federallevel. If every HEC has its own rules, then there will be problems and issues. It is also expensive and it does not seem to me the most efficient way. But I do think that funding, to some extent, can be delegated to provinces, otherwise there should be a central authority that maintain standards. I am in favour of a federal HEC.
The Educationist: Are you satisfied with this year’s budget allocation of higher education?
Dr Javed Ashraf: We have very limited resources in Pakistan and I would love to see a bigger education budget. But as an economist, I would also like to see a bigger development budget, and a bigger military budget and a bigger budget for everything else. Given our very limited resources, I think the current government is doing what it can. HEC’s budget has grown this year, it is still not ideal but that is what we can afford as a developing country. The Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) has allocated Rs 3 billion for QAU. It is a lot of money if you consider that last year the country’s total tax revenue was Rs 2,200 billion. I applaud the government that it is giving the education sector importance. As far as the question that is it enough, we have to see it in a relative sense that we have very limited overall resources.
The Educationist: Recently, the government asked educational institutions and other organisations to hire expatriates on a short-term basis. What is your opinion about this?
Dr Javed Ashraf: There is also a short-term hiring programme of HEC, and then there is also a long-term programme. I think Pakistan should try to attract as many expatriates as we can because these people are loyal to Pakistan and want to contribute to its development. The expertise that they have acquired while working in another country can help us in many ways and I appreciate this effort by the government.
The Educationist: Sir what will be your future course of action at the QAU and how can the performance of QAU affect other institutions of higher learning?
Dr Javed Ashraf: At QAU the standard of research is excellent, having lived abroad I can say that we can be proud of what is being done. Our faculty is publishing in well-reputed journals, in that sense we can be a guide and a leader for the rest of the country’s institutions. In some areas we have a fewer number of PhD faculty members, it is true for our faculty in social sciences. We are now trying to get 100 per cent PhD qualified faculty and more importantly we are trying to get faculty who have completed PhD from reputed universities of the world.
The Educationist: What is your opinion about the tenure track system as teachers often speak against this system?
Dr Javed Ashraf: It is quite a reasonable demand by faculty members who are working under this system as they have not been given a raise for the past four years, whereas faculty members under the basic pay scale (BPS) system get a raise every year. I have heard that there will be an increase of 25 per cent for the TTS faculty soon and I think it is very necessary for the encouragement of faculty members. As there is a big concern of brain-drain in Pakistan, such things (low salaries) have a negative effect as well-qualified people have many options. Now qualified teachers have an option to opt for jobs in the Middle East, as newly-established universities are acquiring people from India and Pakistan. Salaries, I think, plays an important part in retaining a good teaching faculty.
The Educationist: Being an economist, how do you see the economy of Pakistan in the coming few year?
Dr Javed Ashraf: Recently there was an article in Forbes magazine that Pakistan was on the right track in terms of economic development. They said that Pakistan was now stable and the government had taken positive development steps for economic growth. The government and the Armed forces had taken a firm stance against terrorism. They called the Pakistani Cabinet, a competent cabinet. I have frequent interactions with Balighur Rehman and Ahsan Iqbal, both are well-educated from the top universities of the world. There was another positive article in the Economist about Pakistan, and I also read somewhere that Pakistan’s economic performance was better than USA and Canada in the recent past. You can see positive economic indicators in the country, so overall I am very optimist about Pakistan’s economic future.
The Educationist: How do you see the education future of Pakistan, as there have been many changes, in terms of policy, in the recent past?
Dr Javed Ashraf: This is a hard question, as it all depends upon resources. The more resources we have, the more we can do and higher results can be attained. In higher education, since the establishment of the HEC, PhD qualified faculty has exponentially increased. This was not true before 2002, in fact at IBA Karachi when I joined in the year 2000 there was only one PhD faculty member there. Now there have 35 or 36 PhDs there, and it only teaches business administration. The majority of PhDs at QAU are those who were sent abroad by the HEC. So if you look at the recent years, many positive things have happened in the education sector of Pakistan. Now our universities have well-qualified faculty, which was not the case just a few years ago.
The Educationist: What would you like to achieve before your tenure at the QAU ends?
Dr Javed Ashraf: I would like to see a 100 per cent faculty at the QAU. Currently, we have around 70 per cent PhD faculty here. In some departments we have 100 per cent PhD faculty such as our Biological Sciences, in Natural Sciences it’s more than 90 per cent. In Social Sciences, we have a lower percentage. I also want to acquire PhDs from other universities as we need fresh thinking in our university.