Eight years ago, a task force advising Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, devised a bold plan to revive the country’s dying research system: the creation of universities with a special emphasis on science, technology and engineering. To introduce a five-fold increase in public funding for .
The proposal was a radical departure from the conventional wisdom on the economics of developing countries, which favors incremental investment. A sudden surge of cash is considered dangerous in poor countries, which often lack the capacity of the entities or people needed to make the most of such windfall gains, and money can easily be wasted or may be a victim of corruption.
However, Musharraf agreed to the offer. Reforms began in 2003. And the results, which have now earned a worthy thumbs up from a group of experts in science and education policy (see page 38), offer some valuable lessons for other developing countries.
First, conventional wisdom is not always correct. Despite initial doubts that Musharraf’s autocratic regime could effectively allocate the new funds, experts cited success as a free national digital library and high-speed Internet access for universities as well as more than 2,000 students.
Able to cite initiatives such as the new scholarship to study. For PhD abroad – with incentives to return to Pakistan later. And they acknowledge that the reform years have increased the number of Pakistani authors publishing in research journals, particularly in mathematics and engineering, as well as the impact of their research outside Pakistan.
Second, human capital matters. One concern raised by the report published in this issue is that the qualifications of 3,500 candidates for Pakistan’s new domestic PhD programs are lower than those of foreign-going candidates.
But it is a condition that should get better with time as schools in Pakistan improve. For the time being, more importantly, Pakistan has opened up research degree opportunities to many more people than before – those with no wealthy families, or access to influential people, or good skills in European. languages. Harnessing those reserves of talent is an integral part of the development of any nation.
Finally, accountability is essential. This was not a priority for the architects of Pakistan’s educational reform, partly because they were working for an autocratic regime, and partly because they were in a hurry. Atta-ur-Rehman, Musharraf’s science advisor, recalled that the government was living on borrowed time.
On the one hand, politicians, judges and lawyers were pushing for a return to democracy; On the other hand, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban was increasing.
Suicide bombers twice tried to assassinate Musharraf – once by blowing up his convoy when he returned to deliver a speech to scientists. If the reformers did not implement their program quickly, they feared that they might not implement it at all.
The result, however, is that the Higher Education Commission, the body created to implement the reforms, has functioned with minimal oversight by academics, parliamentarians or anyone else. There has been some wastage, though so far no one has accused the commission of gross abuse of power.
But it has demonstrated blind spots that an outside influence can be corrected – notably a total lack of investment in social science and policy research, topics that encourage asking questions that autocrats often do not like to answer. We do.
This will have to change. Pakistan is no longer a dictatorship. The elected government led by President Asif Ali Zardari has expressed cautious support for Musharraf’s continuation of education reforms. There is therefore an opportunity to build on their successes and correct their shortcomings, along with an independent review of the commission’s performance.