NUMS — the way forward

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Dr Fawad Kaiser

Pakistan relies on its universities to deliver far more of its research than any other third world nation, and Pakistan’s innovation agenda will rely heavily on universities to drive it. Currently, Pakistani universities are significantly underfunded for the research work they do in comparison to other regional countries. Its universities teach students funded jointly by taxpayers and students, both of whom benefit. University teaching should truly reflect the cost of individual course offerings, but currently, it doesn’t. In many cases, students are heavily cross-subsidising Pakistan’s underfunded essential research, literally keeping the lights on in the labs and research hubs of Pakistan’s universities.
National University of Medical Sciences (NUMS) was granted its Charter in 2015. It is envisioned to become Pakistan’s flagship, research-led university, and known for the excellence of its teaching, research, and services to local, national and international communities. It will be known as an innovation university, recognised as a powerful engine for growth and for tackling the scientific challenges of the future; attracting inward investment, and driving prosperity and health. Transforming innovation and research activities will see the university acting as a magnet for participants and funding.
This platform for research, innovation, translational and educational activity will be the challenge for NUMS to enhance that position on an increasingly competitive international stage. The Office of Research, Innovation and Commercialism (ORIC) has been established in NUMS to develop a dynamic and internationally competitive research in medical science to improve health care in Pakistan. Dr Mujtaba Quadri has been appointed as Dean ORIC, who holds an eminent status both in clinical medicine and research.
The development of ORIC will form a central part of NUMS strategy. It will support the development of University Research Institute in Behavioural Sciences and Allied Health Sciences including Psychology and Biogenetics on the lines of research, innovation, and commercialism excellence. It should plan to develop new research institutes, focussing largely on the current challenges of our time including terrorism and bio- psychosocial links to criminology. These new institutes can be developed via a range of activities, some of which can be initially from the establishment of University Research Networks, then developed into University Research Centres to the eventual establishment of University Research Institutes. To increase the university’s supply of well qualified and highly skilled people, NUMS will be expected to recruit and support a specified minimum number of high-quality postgraduate research students, funded through a variety of sources, including the university, industrial partners, and overseas governments.
Universities should rethink of the criteria to promote their academic staff so that quality research can take place. Academics are not ‘enjoying’ the research because the ‘benefits’ are not immediately seen. In most universities overseas, academic staff competes to hold big research grants because they get a certain percentage of their income from it. Every time they get an article published in high impact factor journals, a bonus is added to their take home pay. In the United Kingdom, for example, not a single professor draws in the same salary even if they have the same qualification and same date of employment. When he brings in a postgraduate student, he gets another ‘percentage’ of the student’s fee. This is a typical age-old story of the carrot and the stick.
Education is the economic success story of the last decade. It has been achieved by consistent innovation in an increasingly competitive marketplace, further improvement in the international research performance of universities, and significant widening of access and opportunity for domestic and international students. These education markets were not developed at any government’s behest but by universities through the sector’s own creativity as an invaluable revenue stream to sustain their funding of research on behalf of the nation. It is worth noting that of the 69 percent of Australia’s economic activity is derived from services; only the education sector has managed to grow its export earnings faster than the total Australia economy over the past decade. Every one of the above facts is interlinked. We are dealing with an increasingly competitive international student market considering the rapid rise of private sector universities and with the UK and the US determined to increase their proportion of students from the Asia-Pacific region.
Pakistan is an ideologically progressive nation. In order to become an industrially advanced and technologically competitive nation, the country needs to increase Research and Development expenditure to approximately 2.5 percent of its GDP. Public-Private partnership in funding research must be increased. The public universities must strategize to increase the quality of the research, improve the ranking of the university, and at the same time compete with the private sectors which continue to entice academics especially those in the medical schools. The above is a mix of concerning facts, but they are facts nevertheless, and they require addressing, as does the myth that when universities open up a public discussion on the need for long-term sustainable funding that addresses those facts, they are attached to government apron strings and should be removed.
Critically linked to this is the fact that parents now use university world rankings to choose a student destination. University world rankings are judged predominantly on their research performance, and the lower rankings equal fewer high-quality students for the universities. Lesser quality research equals lower rankings. Therefore, like universities, we are caught up in the perfect storm. This leaves our universities significantly lagging behind those in the UK, US, New Zealand and even behind non-university medical research institutes in private sector.
Graduates do especially benefit from an education in a research-intensive university. They do this through exposure to researchers and state-of-the-art research kit during their studies. However, students should not be expected to pay two to three times the amount the government does to support the overheads of research. There is an urgency to dealing with this and universities should consult with Higher Education Commission (HEC) for possible options.
The urgency comes because every single day research is an investment being made to ensure our nation’s future. Resolving how to fund better research is the key to alleviating present issues with each of their other interlinked components. The universities have to actively consider allowing the percentage a student is loaned interest-free by the government to fund their university education. Neither of those options sounds outrageous or unfair given the value to a graduate’s earning power from a quality education. So the question remains.
How do we fund the current research distortion? Some level of fee flexibility within the policy mix is one option. However, ultimately, the HEC will have to address the issue of research funding in Pakistan. If the government wants to back proven winners and the university sector has the runs on the board and to promote innovation — then somehow within its funding pie it must find ways to invest. It is a false notion to think we should not address this issue. If we do not, it is the Pakistan economy which will lose.