In Pakistan, the responsibility of accrediting universities lies with the HEC and is a two-step process. First, the higher education institution (HEI) itself needs to be accredited by the HEC; second, each educational programme has to be accredited by a council relevant to its field.
The HEC recognises a total of 187 universities. In addition, the HEC maintains a list of colleges affiliated with these universities, which presently runs an approximately 3,800 long. This puts the total number of institutions the HEC has to monitor at around 4,000. Since colleges and universities offer many different programmes of study, the number of programmes at different colleges/campuses the HEC has to monitor can easily run into tens of thousands.
Given all its other responsibilities, and given the magnitude of the problem, it is a wonder that no more fake and substandard programmes and institutions fall through the cracks. As of today, the HEC has listed 155 fake colleges and universities. Of these, 103 are in Punjab, 36 in Sindh, 11 in KPK, 3 in AJK, 2 in Islamabad and none in Balochistan.
By setting standards for the accreditation of universities, the HEC is setting a minimum standard for the country’s university graduates. It ensures that colleges and universities operate with sufficiently qualified faculty, reasonable student-teacher ratios, classroom and lab space and facilities, etc.
In addition, universities are required to obtain and maintain accreditation for each of their programmes. For undergraduate education programmes, this is the responsibility of pre-existing independent professional councils, e.g., the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) for engineering, the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) for medical, the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) for legal education, etc. Graduate (MS/Ph.D.) programmes are accredited by the HEC’s own Quality Assurance Agency and the Ph.D. Review Committee.
Repercussions of non-accreditation
The HEC has one principal stick it can use to enforce its rules: Refusing attestation of degrees from unrecognised universities and programmes. There are no statistics available on the number of students that fall prey to fake universities every year. However, going by a conservative estimate of only 1,000 students per university — with 155 unaccredited universities operating in the country — means that on any given day there are about 150,000 students working and paying their way towards graduating with a degree that is not recognised by the HEC.
The repercussions of graduating with an unrecognised degree are several. Such degrees do not fulfill the requirement for appointment to government service, disqualify its holder from applying to most scholarship programmes, bars its use in immigration applications to most popular destinations, etc. In these ways, obtaining a degree from a “university” not recognised by the HEC can be a waste of time, money and opportunities.
Our knee jerk response to most national and societal problems is a lazy demand to make “the government handle it”. In a country where success comes to people and private enterprise not because of the government but despite it, relying on the government for any solutions should be a last resort.
In the Pakistani context, we favour market-driven solutions that are minimally dependent on the state. As long as the state is able to keep under-trained and under-qualified graduates out of critical positions, there is nothing inherently bad or immoral about a person studying at a university whose programme is not recognised, if one knowingly chooses to.
There is nothing new under the sun, and neither are the problems of our university system. The American higher education accreditation process offers a model that not only minimises the role of government bureaucracy but, also, has produced the best universities in the world. Since 1952, accreditation is a peer review process coordinated by various area-specific accreditors and member institutions. This process was put in place to solve the same problem Pakistan’s higher education sector is facing today, i.e., weeding out questionable institutions of higher learning.
Unlike in Pakistan, the US Department of Education does not maintain a list of accredited universities. The role of the Department of Education and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, an NGO, is limited to recognising a list of reputable accrediting bodies for different educational programmes, which it publishes annually. A few names that even readers in Pakistan may be familiar with include the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for applied science, computing, engineering, and technology programmes, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs for business schools, the American Bar Association for law schools, the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation for dentistry schools, the American Veterinary Medical Association for veterinary schools, etc.
This peer review process acknowledges that it is not possible for one or even a handful of bureaucrats, who are likely out of touch with recent developments and direction education in an area is moving, to be able to accredit at this scale. This way, the task of setting standards is left to the specialists in their fields, while the role of government is limited to recognising capable accreditation bodies and publishing a list of their names.
As the reader can see, the process for accreditation of professional programmes in the Pakistan closely resembles that in the US and appears to be working reasonably well. Professions for which suitable accreditation councils did not previously exist (teacher education, agriculture, computer science, business, etc.) have been set up by the HEC. Whether they are all functioning at the level they should be is another question.
The HEC’s process of HEI accreditation is well intentioned. However, considering the number of programmes and colleges operating in the country, the size of the resources at its disposal are a poor match for the scale of the problem. Going by the number of colleges operating in the country, there will always be some unapproved colleges cropping up that the HEC will not be able to catch and shut down.
Furthermore, we conclude that the development of the programme accreditation process in Pakistan is set on a good track. The HEC should continue to maintain a list of accrediting councils (e.g., PEC, PMDS, PBC, etc.) as it is right now and let those councils maintain lists of accredited programmes. Prospective students and their parents should be able to simply look up which accrediting body’s stamp of approval they have to look for on a university programme — a “buyer beware!” strategy.
Consider the complex trade-offs Pakistanis weigh and consider when presented with a number of real-estate investment opportunities. Asking them to do some minimal research and do the same when considering their academic future is not an unreasonable expectation. Most people are already aware of the differences between graduating from an accredited vs a non-accredited programme.
Nevertheless, if there is sufficient demand for non-accredited programmes by informed customers whose future plans do not require accreditation, there is no reason why some HEIs should not be able to supply them. On the other hand, if market demand for non-accredited programmes is insufficient these HEIs will wither and die. In any case, an informed customer base will solve this problem better than government oversight.