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[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan's new five-year development plan has slammed the country's higher education authorities for prioritising the quantity of science doctorate degrees without considering capacity, and recommends an overhaul.  

The 2010–2015 plan, released last month (June) by the country's planning commission, criticises the recent trend in massive PhD production by the country's Higher Education Commission (HEC) — which oversees research and development in universities — as a "number game".

"A mechanical number game to meet targets of graduates and doctorates could prove in the long term to be very harmful. A realistic view must be taken of the capacity of the higher education sector, to ensure quality standards," it says.

The commission estimates that 4,000 Pakistani students are pursuing PhD programmes in foreign universities and an equal number in universities at home. The country generated an estimated 300 PhD degrees in 2008, a six-fold rise from 50 in 2005.

It also notes that most of the students who earned a PhD abroad are being wasted because of a lack of opportunities on returning home.

The government plans to combat this through a number of schemes to make better use of such students, including centrally-administered and industry-linked centres of excellence, biotechnology parks and innovation hubs in the universities.

"We aim to end the trend of irrelevant research [not relevant to national needs] and support science with socioeconomic benefits," Ishfaq Ahmad, the prime minister's science adviser, told SciDev.Net.

The reaction among academics to this restructuring is mixed. Some are cautious about restructuring HEC programmes, fearing cuts in university funding and scholarships. "Success is not about making plans but implementing the vision on the ground. Any reforms should not undo the past achievements," says Punjab University vice-chancellor Mujahid Kamran.

But others welcome the restructuring. Pakistan faces an "enormous skill deficit" and "the problem cannot be eradicated by having PhD-producing mills," says Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

An immediate priority is teacher training and improving the physical structure and working conditions in Pakistan's 900-plus colleges, Hoodbhoy says.