The Roadmap of Reform: Do’s and Don’ts of Higher Education Reforms

December 7th, 2014 | by MuslimScience
The Roadmap of Reform: Do’s and Don’ts of Higher Education Reforms
Public Policy

By: Dr. Athar Osama

Universities are the bedrock of a knowledge society. They are not only responsible for producing educated individuals – the intelligentsia and thought leaders as well as the manpower – that are necessary to run the affairs of a society, they also produce ideas and new knowledge that are often a critical ingredient of development.


oxford-universityIn the developed West, universities have evolved over hundreds of years into institutions that specialize in creating and disseminating this knowledge widely. They do so by taking a global body of students and encouraging the faculty to publish in journals that have international circulations.

In the Muslim World, and particularly the Arab World, universities are a relatively recent phenomenon. Three quarters of all Arab Universities were established in the last 25 years of the 20th century. This observation, notes Nader Fergany, the noted Arab social scientist and scholar and one of the key authors of the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) of 2003, is important: Higher educational institutions, universities in particular, take a long time to consolidate their institutional structure and to perfect their role in dissemination and production of knowledge.
Unfortunately, universities in the Muslim World have traditionally been too badly funded or controlled to be able to do their job of fostering a discourse and creating new knowledge. Traditionally, most have been relegated to mere teaching shops rather than places where new knowledge is created and ground breaking discoveries happen.
Winds of Change

This has begun to change rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s as many Muslim countries suddenly woke up to the reality of their Higher Education Systems and embarked upon massive reforms in the higher education sector. Suddenly, the university found itself in a state of massive flux.

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To take a few examples:

  • In Pakistan, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has invested heavily in creating new Universities, upgrading existing ones, and funding thousands of PhD scholarships for faculty development.
  • In Qatar, Doha Education City was created where several foreign set up their campuses including Universities including Weill Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University, among others.
  • In Saudi Arabia, several new Universities were established with billions of dollars of investment in set up costs and endowments. These includes Princess Noura University – the largest women University in the World – and King Abdullah University of Sciences and Technology (KAUST) for which an entire city complete with its own yahgt club was created on the shores of Red Sea. Saudi Arabia has also invested heavily in the existing universities including massive investments in a foreign scholarship programme.
  • In Malaysia, Universities have also undergone something of upgrade with creation of an elite class of research universities. And these are not the only ones.
  • In the United Arab Emirates, an entire Academic City is being constructed and reputed foreign names such as NYU, INSEAD, Sorborne, and MIT have either created their own campuses or lent credence locally grown partnerships.

education_city_doha-advice_learn_lawn_near_administrationMany of these reform efforts have been very challenging. Not only do the reformers have to overcome stiff resistance from those in support of the status quo, they must also chart a course that is likely to deliver results. Here many of them have found themselves to be in uncharted territory. The University systems in the developed world that they are aspiring be like have evolved over decades, if not centuries and there is very little established wisdom on how to do this quickly and effectively in a developing country context. Besides context matter and every single country is different. Many of these reformers have thus felt as if they have been pushed off a high cliff and have assemble their gliders on the way while charting a course for their flight.

Jury is still out on each of these and many more efforts to enhance the competitiveness of Higher Education in countries around the Muslim World. It is too soon to issue a verdict on whether these have failed or succeeded what were designed to do or even if something totally unintended has been created as a result.

There cannot be a one-size-fits-all prescription to the challenges faced by many of these countries since the circumstances and endowments within each are different. However, there could be some generalised lessons from these – and other – examples of attempting to reform higher education around the world.

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Do’s and Don’ts of Higher Education Reform

Here are a set of Do’s and Don’ts that would-be reformers from countries planning to or already implementing Higher Education Reforms in the Muslim World (and elsewhere) could benefit from:

1. Invest in faculty – Select the best and the brightest and give them wings

The most important ingredient in any effort to reform Higher Education must be investment in faculty. Faculty is the production technology that creates the output of the higher education system i.e. qualified students. One must invest in quality faculty for mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Over the years, our Universities have become hubs of people who, for no fault of their own, have stagnated due to years of not having to do much research and are often unwilling to acknowledge that the times have changed. It is, therefore, important to shake things up a bit by bringing young people into the mix. They would have to train through a PhD programme abroad AND it is also important to give these people wings so that they are not shot down by the old guard. It is also probably a good idea to hire people with different set of incentives and objectives for not everyone is motivated by the same things. A University could, in principle, hire teachers, researchers, and practitioners in different professional streams and addressing different needs of the country. Another corollary of this is that planners should invest in people rather than buildings (i.e. real estate). More often than not priorities of policymakers and planners are the opposite primarily because the latter is much easier to do and justify than the former.

2. Remember: Money cannot (always) buy good quality research

There has been a tendency to think that only if we had more money, we could bring about Higher Education Reforms. There are a number of examples where institutions have sought to ‘buy’ influence and countries have thrown immense amount of resources in somewhat fruitless endeavors of paying exorbitant sums to foreign universities to open up campuses. Like other needs of a country such as health, environment, and national defense, higher education must compete for scarce resources and be subject to the same cost-effectiveness concerns. It is true that money is an important ingredient of the production function and that research funding must be available to carry out research and faculty deserves to be paid well enough to allow them to devote themselves to their chosen missions but it is probably not the most important one.

3. Don’t play the numbers game

In an effort to reform higher education, quickly and conclusively, governments have sometimes fallen victim to the numbers game. Everyone now and then, one will hear pronouncements like ‘We will produce 5000 PhDs in 5 years’ or ‘We seek to create 100,000 PhDs in the next 10 years.’ This seemingly harmless desire to create ‘soundbites’ for the media or satisfy the demands of the political PR machine could result is disaster as country’s enter the slippery slope of in producing quantity over quality. If a particular country or a University has not produced more than 20 PhDs a year for the last so many years, it is unlikely to be able to produce 10 times that number on one fine morning just because a leader said so. Producing PhDs or research papers cannot be produced at will and increased/decreased based on a linear production function – particularly if quality is of paramount importance. Playing the numbers game invariably results in compromises on quality and is best avoided.

4. Don’t follow the rankings, let them follow you

University rankings these days have become a popular fodder for those seeking to reform the University Systems. In the Muslim World, Saudi Arabia recently gate crashed several global rankings by declaring that its universities had ‘arrived’ by making it among top-500 in the World. Pakistan was not very far behind with its own claim for ‘4 in top-400.’ Many others have sought to follow suit. There has even been an attempt by OIC to create its own University rankings that did not go anywhere because member countries did not agree upon a criteria that could satisfy each ones desire to get as many of their Universities in the top-10 or top-50. By and large, running after rankings often distorts the real stuff that Universities must care about i.e. whether quality education is being delivered there or not AND whether they care creating conditions of critical inquiry and knowledge creation to take place. Trying to do well on certain indicators can compromise the ‘invisible’ real stuff but not vice versa.

5. Find a way to reward merit and performance rather than seniority

Universities must find a way to reward merit and performance in both hiring and promotion. It must provide a clear picture of what is expected of people – from teaching fellows, research professors, and practice professors, and others – and create appropriate incentives so that people can deliver. This is particularly hard to do in well-established older institutions since there will be a lot of resistance to do this but this one thing that needs to be done if Universities are to reform and deliver performance. In Pakistan, the Higher Education Commission has tried to do this through the introduction of a ‘pay for performance’ tenure track system in Universities that pays people a lot more than those under the traditional ‘pay for seniority’ basic pay scales. This was initially widely resisted but seems to have begun to now take roots. This is a very tricky situation and there are not good models to follow here. It is less costly, perhaps, to give the equivalent of a golden handshake of those unwilling to enter a performance based regime than to keep them on to continue to resist, ridicule, and undermine those who do.

6. Be very mindful of unintended consequences and perversion of incentives

Policies always have unintended consequences and it is the job of policymakers to be very careful to minimise these. This is particularly true when you play with incentives since these can have powerful – unintended – consequences on people’s behavior. Do high powered financial incentives to publish lead to better quality publications or just more publications? What happens when Universities force their faculty to become entrepreneurs? They become entrepreneurs and in doing so could end up being less of the researchers on whose work a future breed of entrepreneurial ventures must be based. What happens when a Higher Education agency launches a PhD programme that provides a financial ‘incentive’ to faculty to take on more PhD students without specifying an entry criteria? The faculty would enroll students by the dozens sometimes each taking on many more PhD students than they can possibly supervise and in the process seriously harming the ultimate cause. The bottom line: policymakers must be very careful with the high-powered hammers they hold. It is best to gradually tinker with incentives and evaluate impact before scaling up because sometimes seemingly commonsense policies can lead to large unintended consequences.

7. Create new institutions to encourage competition

While there is always wisdom in not re-inventing the wheel and working with what already exists on the ground, sometimes it becomes necessary to create a visible model of excellence that can be replicated elsewhere. In Pakistan, the Aga Khan University – which became the first private sector University east of Turkey – was one such experiment. Aga Khan University revolutionised the way medical education was done and perceived. It set the standard and created the first Nursing School and the first Community Health programme and these were copied by other medical schools in the country. There have since been others. New institutions can be created to create competition and raise the bar within a stagnant higher education system. They should never be created merely for increasing the number of institutions or enhancing access alone.

8. Embrace the technology of learning to create student-centric and inquiry based education

Universities must embrace technology to create the conditions necessary for 21st century learning. There are atleast two types of technologies that Universities need to embrace and build upon. First, Universities worldwide are being threatened – and some are embracing – the technology of anywhere anytime education a.k.a. MOOCs (or ‘massively online open courses’). Universities like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT have embraced platforms like edX, MIT OCW, Coursera and Udacity. While there are doubts about the long-term sustainability of these models, the initial success of these ventures highlight the desire to democratise quality higher education and make it accessible to those who may not get the opportunity. The second kind of technology that Universities must embrace one that makes it possible for learning to become more experiential, student-centric, and inquiry based. Bruce Alberts, the recent National Medal of Science Laureate and an ardent champion of inquiry based science education at all levels proposes the use of more experiential, group-based learning, enabled by technology for undergraduate education.

9. Create linkages with the society

Universities have traditionally been isolated from the rest of the society busy doing work that is too important to be questioned about. However, the winds of change are demanding that this ‘ivory tower’ becomes more responsive to and integrated with the society at large. Increasingly Universities are being required to create linkages downstream linkages with the industry but also upstream linkages with the education system that forms the feeder for the University system. There is increasing pressure on academia to be more responsive to the tax payer that funds it and help solve the problems of the society in which operates. This often does not happen automatically and requires conscious effort on the part of academia to take on roles that it usually doesn’t.

10. Create an environment conducive for critical thinking and freedom of expression

Universities must be places where new ideas are created and propagated for the benefit of the society. Adil Najam, the former Vice Chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences and the current Dean of School of Global Studies at Boston University believes that critical inquiry is an important – if not the most important – role that academia plays within the society. This can only be done if there is complete freedom of thought and expression within academia, where people genuinely feel that their ideas be subjected to the review of only their peers and will not be censored for any other reason but for the merits of the ideas themselves. This is the hardest to do but more important of them all. This is hard because censorship can come in many shapes and forms – may be explicit or implicit, and be imposed from outside or inside (self-censorship). This must also go all the way down to the classroom where students must be free and encouraged to speak their minds, ask questions, or question authority without fear or reprimand.


Dr. Athar Osama holds a PhD in Science and Innovation Policy from the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy in Santa Monica, CA. He is the founder and publisher of Muslim-Science.Com and the Founder and Chief Executive of Pakistan Innovation Foundation.



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