The Myth of Mushrooming of Universities in Pakistan

I think we were and are being sold this myth of “Mushrooming of Universities in Pakistan” because there are forces that do not want 20,000 universities coming up in Pakistan and would like to cap the number of universities and HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) to a small manageable and controllable number. In 2006, in India there were over 22,000 engineering colleges, institutes and universities of all hues and shades in public and private sector. Of courses, not all of them had the stature of IITs, but there were plenty providing a useful service.
Actually, there is a 20-80 rule working here. If you have 200 universities, 20% of these i.e. 40 would be high quality. However, if there are 2000 universities, then there would be 20% i.e. 400 quality institutions, and if the total figure goes up to 20,000 then we would have 4000 high quality universities. Hidden agenda of foreign donor agencies never wanted this kind of explosion and concomitant increase in quality institutions in Pakistan. Their agenda is to keep us as captive consumers not transform us as net producers. Hence, they funded heavily the HEC to stifle the growth of the private sector through useless quality initiatives not practiced by any HEC equivalent body in most countries of the world.

Let me give you the example of Austin, Texas where I went to study. Around 1990 the population of Austin was around 400,000. UT Austin’s student population was over 50,000. There was another private university, St Edwards in Austin with over 10,000 students, not to speak of so many 2-year community colleges leading the students to the 4 year programs of the universities. 22 miles south of Austin was San Marcos, a small town, where the university had over 20,000 students. 60 miles to the north was Waco, where the university had over 40,000 students. Around 100 miles to the east was College Station where Texas A&M university had over 35,000 students. We are just talking about small population centers (even smaller than Austin) around the heart of the biggest state Texas of USA. We have not even included the student population figures of the three biggest cities of Texas, namely Houston, San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth.

How many universities in Pakistan can boast of on-campus population of over 20,000, let alone 50,000+.

Around 2005-06 the population of Pakistan was 160million and the total number of university students was 400k. In the nineties Texas had a population of around 25million and the number of students was over 900k. With this ratio, only Karachi with a population of around 20million needs double the combined number of students of all the universities in Pakistan, public and private together!
There goes the myth of mushrooming of universities and HEIs!

I think the myth of mushrooming of higher education institutions was propagated through influential spokespersons to debilitate the nascent private sector and clip its wings before it could fly. This was done by erecting high entry barriers including financial and non-financial barriers. The propagators of this myth never understood or did not want to understand the theory of market dynamics. The market has its own mechanisms for ensuring the desired quality. Market forces eventually decide which universities would survive and which would fold under. It is the survival of the fittest. However, bureaucrats sitting in Islamabad wasting millions of dollars of aid money to be paid by the tax money extracted from our future generations of poor Pakistanis have no inclination to study or understand the quality demands of the market forces.

The objectives of bureaucracy has always been to increase their turf, control and power. A government organization always wants to have more and more areas under its control to justify its importance, to grow and create opportunities for spreading its tentacles. The problem with the growth of government organizations is that they feed upon the tax money extracted from the hard earned money of the poor people.
Like all other countries, rich people in Pakistan through their powerful lobbies find ways and means to avoid giving proportional taxes. Only the poor, salaried and captive consumers end up paying the taxes.  The problems get further compounded when the government lacks transparency in decision making and there are major good governance issues.

Therefore, it is a famous saying that “Less Government is More Government”.

The task of government is to facilitate and get out of the way. The more it intrudes, the more fat the bureaucracy accumulates, the more heavily taxed the economy becomes, the more burden a common person accumulates. Efficient market economies have their own weed out mechanisms for substandard products.

If any institution is not offering quality services, students would stop going to it. Market forces would eject that institution. We saw this happening after the dotcom crash. There used to be a time when every nook and corner had IT institutes coming up and offering their wares. Only the committed and dedicated survived. Market forces determined whether the product offered was genuine and those not fulfilling a genuine demand folded up.

The government organizations all over the world thrive on fear and extend their control and turf and generate their own momentum and thrust using the fallout after every adverse incident as  a pretext.

The above write-up is an extended rehash of the ideas presented in a talk on “Five Major Myths of Higher Education” made at the CIO Conference, March 2009 at Sheraton, Karachi. See another link

[Following was written in June 9, 2004]
It is with amusement that one reads the HEC’s view about mushrooming of institutes of higher education in. USA has over 4,500 degree granting institutions (IPEDS-IC:93-94). I think Pakistan with such a large population needs hundreds if not thousands of universities. It also needs students in lacs if not in millions.

I used to be in Austin, Texas in early 1990s. It was a small city with a population of around 6 lacs. The University of Texas at Austin had over 50,000 students. There was another private university St. Edwards, which had around 10,000 students. About 20 miles to the South of Austin is a small city of San Marcos with a population of around 1 lac. The university in San Marcos had around 22,000 students. Another 80 miles to the north of Austin is the small town of Waco with a population of over1 lac. It had a university with over 30,000 students. Another 120 miles to the north-east is the small city of College Station. Texas A&M University at College Stations had over 30,000 students.

This is just a small sampling of universities in the small towns and cities of Texas. One can estimate how many more students would be enrolled in the universities of the big cities of Texas such as, Houston, Dallas, Fort-Worth and San Antonio. The list of Public Universities in Texas (, indicates that there are over 9 lac students in just one state of USA. The state has a population much less than that of Pakistan. Also note that this figure only gives the students in public sector universities of Texas. This list does not include students of scores of private universities like Rice University in Houston, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, or St. Edwards University in Austin. It also does not include students enrolled in two-year colleges.

Now compare these figures of enrollments in Texas with Pakistan. Most of the universities and institutes in Pakistan have enrollments running into a few thousand of students. Even Karachi University, the biggest university in the biggest city of Pakistan has only around 14,000 students. This is indeed a tiny number considering the size of Karachi and its population of over 1 crore. Hence, establishment of 20-30 institutes of higher education in the past few years cannot in any way be classified as mushrooming. Especially so, when we consider the population of Pakistan which is over 140 million.

The argument for mushrooming assumes that the number of universities is some how linked with the quality of institutions. This is a fallacious assumption given our experience that when there were a few universities in Pakistan their quality was no better. Hence, the quantity of institutes is not linked with their quality. Quality improvements require policy measures other than curtailing their number. We often hear the quote from the platform of HEC that GDP of all the Muslim countries combined is less than that of a single country of Europe like Germany or Sweden. Why don’t we make a similar comparison with the number of universities and the number of students? There also needs for comparing the number of universities in public sector and in the private sector, their evolution and their contributions.

Often the fear about mushrooming of institutions of higher learning originates in the perceptions of academics belonging to the public sector universities. Public universities in Pakistan are now apprehensive about the loss of their monopoly. They are also apprehensive about the rapid progress being made by the institutes in the private sector. We all agree that not all institutes in private sector are of high quality. But, the same statement is also true for public universities. Many institutions in public sector are also not up to the mark despite the huge amounts of grants and subsidies by the taxpayers. This coupled with their lack of responsiveness is one of the major reasons why there is so much demand for the institutions in the private sector.

The solution of the problem of not having high quality is not to stop the setting up of new institutes but to raise the standards of existing ones. We need to encourage selected institutions through a judicious use of incentives and punishments. The policy should also be applied uniformly and fairly to all institutions whether in public sector or private sector.

There is also a need to study the origin and development of various universities in our region. I am glad that someone did not apply the HEC criteria of setting up universities and institutes, otherwise we would not have seen the emergence of Aligarh University or even Karachi University. It is a matter of folklore how dancing women were used for collecting the donations for Aligarh University. Most of the universities in the world have origin in humble environments. Similarly, many private institutions in Pakistan that now have imposing campuses have origins that can be traced to small bungalows and humble beginnings.

I think HEC should invest in research about the number of universities required in Pakistan and what should be their specializations. They should study how universities are setup in the public sector in comparison with how they are established in the private sector. What are the critical success factors? There is also a need to document how many new institutes were established in the last three years and how many of them have closed down and why. How does the forces of supply and demand work in the area of education. How market forces ensure that only good quality universities and institutes survive. HEC should only devise policies based on solid research. The research should be published in refereed journals of international repute with high impact factor. Only then policies should be sent for implementation.

This is the 2nd of the Five Major Myths of Higher Education in Pakistan:

  1. Our backwardness is because of science and technology 
  2. There is mushrooming of educational institutions in Pakistan 
  3. Public universities cost lower than private universities 
  4. Bigger infrastructure (land, building, equipment) means better education 
  5. Impact Factor research measures real impact


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