Why our universities are miserable at research and how to fix it

The article was published on Daily Dawn’s website on 2 November 2014

HEC1

Universities in developed countries have an established research culture. The research output of academia greatly contributes towards the development of these countries.

While universities in Pakistan have the convention of strong classroom teaching, when it comes to research, too little is being carried out to help Pakistan shape its economic, social and scientific policies.

I have been associated with academia and research for more than seven years, and it has always disturbed me to look at the quality of publications most of our researchers produce.

There are several reasons for the sloppy state of research activity in Pakistani universities. But many of these can be resolved with a few steps in the right direction.

Research for the sake of promotion

In 2002, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) started to introduce reforms in universities. Thousands of scholars were sent abroad for higher studies and many of them have already returned and are now serving in Pakistan.

However, although HEC makes sure that scholars do come back after completing their education in foreign countries by signing a legal bond with them, the HEC has set no criteria for the number and quality of publications produced during the course of these PhDs.

Some supervisors fuss over the quality of research due to the international ranking of their research group, but most do not bother at all. Scholars pursuing their studies from reputed universities abroad publish fewer but quality papers whereas for the ones here, it is the other way round.

Universities in Pakistan require a certain number of publications along with a PhD for promotion. The quality of publications is conveniently ignored and so a person having fewer good publications with hundreds of citations is left behind while someone having lot of publications in unknown conferences and journals grabs the position of a tenured professor. This puts off academics from working hard after completing their PhDs and once back in Pakistan, they end up publishing in all sorts of shady journals/conferences.

Jealousies and insecurities amid faculty

It is important to note that most of the people heading individual teaching departments in universities are not actively involved in research themselves.

That is a major reason why these HoDs (Heads of Department) are lax in pushing their departmental colleagues on research, too. Many even feel threatened by the prospect of their younger colleagues getting a high-quality paper published and obtaining critical acclaim or national/international recognition.

I’m sure many of the readers here are more than familiar with this issue — insecure HoDs burdening their subordinates with extra workload; creating hindrances by withholding basic resources like laptops, printers etc.; being generally lazy and what not.

All these factors contribute heavily to the decrepit state of academics in our institutes.

Poor communication and collaboration

Communicating the research and collaborating for future work are two main ingredients for carrying out quality research.

In Pakistan, universities pay no attention to communicating and disseminating the research of their teachers. The reasons for this are much the same as those detailed above: indolence, poor networking and relations, jealousy and just an entrenched culture that has accepted mediocrity as its hallmark and has long been hopeless in the fight against it.

All said, if the research being done is too poor to even merit proper dissemination, who could one really blame?

Tortuous processes of acquiring funding

And why is most of the research poor? Well, a primary reason is because original, groundbreaking research needs funding.

Universities in developed countries have special funds for the training of their academics, for which they send them to summer schools and workshops. Regular seminars are conducted and renowned scholars are invited from all over the world to communicate their research to the young researchers.

HEC does have some funding for organising conferences and travel grants for researchers attending conferences, but the process is too long. Researchers have to apply for the visas before traveling to the conference venue and due to the long process of funding approval, sometimes they are unable to get the visas on time.

Gulf between academia and industry

Around the world, industry works in collaboration with academia so cutting-edge research can solve the relevant problems of the age. This transfer of knowledge from academia to industry is of primary focus in developed economies.

In Pakistan, however, the gap between academia and industry is too wide. Neither is research shaped by industry concerns, nor is it good enough to address them anyway. The detachment from the real world is also the reason our graduates are deemed ill-equipped and inadequate for the professional world, when they go out job-hunting.


How to fix the decrepit research culture


For inculcating healthy and fruitful research practices in academia, we need to start thinking long-term and create research-conducive environments in our universities.

  • To begin with, HEC must follow a policy of accepting only those publications for promotion/selection, which have been published in high-impact places.
  • To keep the senior-most academics involved in research, universities should make it mandatory for every faculty member to publish at least one good quality paper as a lead author every year. This will ensure that even the tenured professors take active part in research and do not put a full stop to it after securing their post.
  • Seeing as a significant number of scholars are now returning to Pakistan, it is the next natural step to facilitate these new inductees and help them gel into the system here. To this end, regular, weekly meetings shoud be conducted, where faculty members get together to discuss ongoing projects. This will be a step towards better communication and networking, mutual understanding and improved dissemination of knowledge to fellow academics not just across but outside of Pakistan. Ultimately, efforts like these will result in more productive research collaborations.
  • To tackle the issue of lengthy processes of travel-grant approvals, HEC must streamline processes and maybe loosen up the requirements a bit, if possible. Sending abroad/inviting home scholars for seminars should be much easier than it currently is.
  • The symbiosis of industry and academia is imperative. Industrial problems can be solved at lower costs if students are involved in the projects. One way of doing this is to assign small research-based projects to Bachelors and Masters students, with the first supervisor from academia and the second supervisor from the industry.

Students usually offer industrial solutions at a small price, which should be attractive to companies. The university, on the other hand, can complement their research by securing funds and equipment for students from the industry in exchange for their ideas.


Although academic research is new to Pakistan, it has already been a decade since HEC started this programme of sending scholars abroad for higher education.

It is now time to forge ahead and introduce research-based projects in our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. We cannot conjure a whole new culture overnight, but let us at least start with introducing the basics of research at undergraduate level.

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