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As universities seeking students and funds aggressively advertise themselves, grading them becomes important. Karachi University, for example, claims to be among the world's top 200 universities, although the security personnel make it resemble a detention camp more than a campus.

Last April, the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) proudly announced that the QS World University Rankings body had placed it 69th among the world's top 100 universities. QAU's publications in "mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering" were lauded. But, QAU does not even have engineering departments.

Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission determines academic excellence by the number of research papers produced. Once cash awards and other perks were announced, a research-poor country started producing a bumper crop of "research articles" - many plagiarised or published in fly-by-night journals.

An ideal university is a bastion of critical inquiry and has academic and cultural freedom. Without that, there cannot be meaningful research and teaching. The ideal university generates products and ideas upon which the progress and survival of civilisation depend.

But a university does not have to be an ideal one in order to be useful. A forward-looking worldview, a spirit of inquiry, an open environment, good ethical standards, a sense of collegiality, and good governance practices are enough. A handful of Pakistani universities, public and private, seem earnest about getting on to this track. The challenge is to get the reluctant majority on board.