Professor David Bloom's speech, The Aga Khan University

Karachi Pakistan, February 7, 2001

I. General

Thank you Dr. Talati for those kind words of introduction.

- Your Excellency Governor Mohammadmian Soomro
- Madam Minister
- President Kassim-Lakha
- Rector Vellani
- Captain Isani
- Syed Babar Ali
- Dignitaries
- Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be here at the AKU, which has certainly been among the strongest and most faithful supporters of the Task Force on Higher Education.

In May of 1999, which was early on in the work of the Task Force, while our plans were still in the putty stage, I had an opportunity to share the early thinking of the TF with a rather extraordinary group of AKU faculty and staff. The group raised fundamental questions and offered much thoughtful advice. My recollection is that the group was anything but shy on that occasion. I hope we can enjoy the same frank and intense level of engagement this afternoon.

I would also like to acknowledge the remarkable hospitality of the AKDN, which organized and hosted one of the main meetings of the Task Force in Geneva. President Kassim-Lakha, Dr. Vellani, Dr. Talati, and other senior staff did a great deal at that meeting to enlighten members of the Task Force on a range of matters. And somewhat more recently, the Task Force received several hefty doses of constructive and thoughtful comments from that same troika on early drafts of its report.

Because of this close association between the AKU and the Task Force, Professor Rosovsky and I had hoped that we would have an opportunity to revisit the AKU and share the fruits of our collective labor. It’s very gratifying to have that wish come true at this gathering.

From Professor Rosovsky’s brief introduction to the Report of the TFHE, you know that the Report has two core messages:

first, that higher education matters to the pace and process of economic and social development;

and second, that the obstacles to higher education reform and strengthening are formidable, but they are not insurmountable.

What I’d now like to do is to spend a few minutes expanding on and reinforcing these two core messages. I would also like to further unpack the ideas contained in the TF report in the interest of informing and stimulating some discussion.

If you examine the Task Force report closely, especially the chapter on the public interest in higher education, you will see the potential benefits of higher education spelled out. These benefits include the well-established boost that higher education provides to productivity and income for the people with higher education.

But higher education also confers benefits above and beyond enhancing the incomes of those receiving the education. It also promotes gains at the societal level. These gains are caused by the multiplier effects that emanate from higher education’s contributions to entrepreneurism, leadership, and governance. For these main reasons, one of the main contentions of the Task Force report is that higher education must be viewed as a vital ingredient in building stronger economies and societies.

These contributions of higher education to national development have been true in the past, but will be even more true in the future, given the growing importance of knowledge in a world economy that is growing increasingly competitive, and, I might add, increasingly unforgiving of laggards.

Pakistan must, of course, plan for tomorrow’s world, not yesterday’s, which means moving higher education closer to the center of its national development radar screen.

But we also have to show a little humility about the theme of this workshop. Yes, it’s true that higher education is a crucial determinant of national development, but we mustn’t get carried away into believing that higher education is the panacea that will thoroughly transform Pakistan and cure its woes.

Social and economic development are complex processes in which lots of factors play a role.

One of the oldest questions in the whole field of economics concerns the matter of why some countries are rich and others poor. Economists have been working on the answer to this question for over two hundred years, dating back at least to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. If you will indulge me as I offer a very simplistic summary of the answer emerging from over two centuries of literature, there appear to be three sets of factors that are important:

- First, what a country has by way of resources and accumulated capital

- Second, what a country does to add value to what it has

- And third, how a country markets what it has.

Successful economies tend to have a number of features in common.

- They exploit their natural resources, accumulate physical capital, and build infrastructure that facilitates economic activity and human security. 

- Their workers acquire general and special skills, which they continually apply to their most productive uses.

- They trade vigorously – in goods and services, technology, and ideas.

- And they have liberal policy environments that encourage competitiveness – as judged by an international standard.

The point here is that higher education contributes to economic growth and human development not just by training workers. It also contributes by enhancing other channels of the development process. It spurs the accumulation and wise use of resources, the creation of favorable and forward-looking policy environments, and the organic generation of increasingly vital national resources in the area of science and technology.

In this connection, it’s important to note that market forces alone will not ensure the development of a higher education system that promotes national needs. Markets are moved by profit, mainly quick profit. Private interests overlap, but only partially, with a society’s long-term interest in accumulating and imparting knowledge and its capacity for generating new knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are two political and technical difficulties that beset us when it comes to mobilizing political commitment and public resources in favor of higher education reform. The first has to do with the long payback period for investments in higher education. This payback period is measured more naturally in decades than months, and certainly extends well beyond the normal time horizon of political leaders, reducing the benefits to them of acting now.

The second problem is the claim that public investment in higher education is socially inequitable because university graduates – who may reasonably be expected to be a country’s future elite, are disproportionately drawn from the current elite and therefore not deserving of public subsidy.

There is surely some truth to this view, but it’s not the whole story and it’s not decisive. As mentioned earlier, higher education confers huge benefits on society as a whole. It would be narrow-minded and counterproductive for a society to forego those benefits simply because they are not distributed equally. In addition, we must keep in mind that higher education is one of the most powerful mechanisms societies have for upward mobility: it has enormous potential to promote prosperity among people with talent and motivation, irrespective of their social origins.

II. Pakistan

I’d like now to offer some brief thoughts on what the analysis and recommendations contained in the TF report might mean for Pakistan.

As noted by Professor Rosovsky, our thinking on this matter has benefited greatly from an intensive two-day dialogue on this topic. The dialogue was held in Lahore earlier this week under the leadership of Syed Babar Ali.

We all recognize how difficult it is for Pakistan to strengthen its higher education sector in the current economic climate. Pakistan’s health, education, and women’s status indicators are poor in comparison to other countries in the region, population growth continues to be rapid, there are burgeoning deficits in government spending and foreign trade, a huge burden of national debt, a narrow tax base, and only meager levels of direct foreign investment.

It is incumbent upon us to recognize that these aspects of Pakistan’s overall development performance limits its options for higher education reform. Since these problems are especially tough on options that require more funds, it would appear that a natural first step in strengthening higher education in Pakistan involves devising ways to use the available resources more efficiently. This might suggest, for example, devoting attention to matters such as governance, rationalization of the system of higher education, and improvement of curricula.

On the other hand, a strong case can be made for declaring Pakistani higher education in crisis, calling for a comprehensive and holistic set of solutions, rather than something that is piecemeal and incremental.

As Professor Rosovsky mentioned, science and technology is one of the main thematic areas covered in the Task Force Report. He has left this topic to me, and I’d be pleased to devote a few minutes to it.

The central view we take in the report is that a strong science and technology base is becoming less a luxury and more a necessity for developing countries that wish to maintain or improve their living standards.

In some developing countries, this base will be useful because of the new discoveries developing country scientists make – especially the ones that have commercial value whose intellectual property benefits accrue to the developing country.

But, more broadly, a strong science and technology base is important to low and middle income countries because it puts them in a stronger position to select and implement existing technologies, and to adapt them to local circumstances.

As an example of this need, the case of genetically-modified food is of some interest, especially appropriate for discussion here in Pakistan, where the Green Revolution was first born.

GM food is produced through the manipulation of genetic material to achieve changed properties in the living organisms that become our food.

Although selective breeding has been used for centuries to genetically modify food crops and livestock, advances in biotechnology promise future changes that are far more rapid and far-reaching.

We are talking here about possibilities that range from

- improving crop yields

- to increasing crop resistance to droughts and pests

- to improving the nutritional value of familiar foods

- to using those foods to create edible vaccines against common diseases

- to reducing the need for environmentally-unfriendly chemical fertilizers.

The day is not far off when we will be able to insert a gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas into an orange so that the orange can survive an early snow or frost.

Biotechnology innovations are being dominated by life science companies in the US and Europe. But the implications for developing countries are profound. On the upside we have the potential of GM foods to help address malnutrition and ill health. But on the downside is the risk these foods will create new allergens, or unwittingly transfer existing allergens to different foods. Cross-breeding between genetically-modified crops and undesirable vegetation could also lead to the creation of “monster weeds” whose control requires the application of larger amounts of yet more poisonous and environmentally deleterious chemicals.

Fears have also been raised among the public of monopolized food markets, or of growth-enhanced genetically-modified salmon escaping their ponds and altering other aquatic environments and species of fish.

GM foods are thus creating an enormous and increasingly urgent need for a new body of technical expertise throughout the world. Developing countries like Pakistan will need this expertise if they are to take advantage of the benefits of GM foods, while seeking to minimize the risks. The situation is especially complex since the risks involved seem to be of low probability events that could have catastrophic impact, even more extreme than the risk of nuclear accidents. Higher education is the natural sector for societies to rely upon as repositories and imparters of this expertise. But this requires huge investments in infrastructure and training, connectivity to the world stock of knowledge, university-industry cooperation, and international cooperation, as well as stable long-term commitments to all of these.

It might also be noted that the example of GM foods raise many complex issues that go beyond science to include matters related to ethics, public regulation, business practice, community life, globalization, and world governance. It is hard to imagine countries addressing these issues effectively without the leadership, or at least the aid, of individuals with a strong general education.

I would like now to draw to a close by sharing a few further thoughts concerning the subject of what Pakistan can do in the area of higher education reform. In offering these remarks I should say that I have benefited substantially from the ideas of a small group of U.S.-based Pakistani professionals that Henry Rosovsky and I met with over dinner last month. Henry and I have promised to report back to the group and so we will be very interested in your reactions to these ideas.

This group made two very practical and thoughtful points that deserve mention – and I hope some discussion, as well. I also think the points they raised were spot on with respect to our discussions at LUMS earlier this week.  

First, the group argued that Pakistan’s higher education system cannot be effectively strengthened without reform of its public universities. In other words, notwithstanding some noteworthy exceptions, such as LUMS and the AKU, Pakistan’s private higher education institutions do not collectively have the reach, the influence, or the freedom to leverage a wholesale improvement in the quality and coverage of higher education in Pakistan. Thus, a plan to reform and strengthen higher education in Pakistan must confront the public sector, which means it must confront problems of bureaucracy, politicization, outdated curricula, run-down and inadequate facilities, paltry budgets, underpaid faculty that moonlight extensively, poorly prepared students, and so on.

Second, the group argued that effective reform requires more than just articulating a sensible new vision for Pakistani higher education. It also requires deep attention to the process of mobilizing political will, building a broad-based consensus in favor of key reform proposals, and marshalling the economic and human resources necessary to implement a reform.

The point here is that it’s easy to stand up here and say that Pakistan’s higher education system needs more and better faculty, students, and resources, academic curricula that are more thoughtful and forward-looking, and better internal and external governance. 

It’s far more difficult to devise a strategy for achieving these goals.

- This requires a deep understanding of the interests of key decision-makers and of a host of other relevant stakeholders.

- It requires an appreciation of national needs and concerns outside the area of higher education.

- It requires taking painfully objective stock of Pakistan’s financial, human, and political resources.

- And it requires a sensitivity to Pakistan’s history and culture to ensure the workability and legitimacy of the institutions that have to be built as part of the reform.

The field of international development is littered with good ideas that have failed to deliver their promised benefits. This intellectual wastage is often due to inattention to the reform process, and because clever policy ideas have not been matched by implementation strategies that pay appropriately sophisticated heed to the harsh realities of the field.

The Task Force report devotes far more attention to policy ideas than to implementation strategies. But if Pakistan wants to succeed in this area, it appears that it will have to devote significant attention to both policy and implementation or, as our colleagues refer to it, to both the technical and political aspects of higher education reform.

Thank you.