Zahir Shah, a mathematician, completed his postdoctoral fellowship in Bangkok in 2019. But nearly two years after returning to his native northwestern Pakistan, he is still looking for a stable job and is desperate to find a tenured position at one of his country’s more than 200 universities, where tens of thousands of teachers are preparing the next generation of professionals and leaders from among more than 1.5 million students.
Shah, however, is not optimistic about finding stable employment anytime soon as he looks at the increasing number of fellow unemployed doctorate holders in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He is among more than 50 candidates with doctoral degrees who have applied for three faculty positions at the University of Lakki Marwat, where he works as a short-term contract teacher.
“Getting a PhD is a great investment in time and money and an uphill struggle,” he said of the more than 20 years he spent securing a post doctorate at King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok. “But there appears to be no guarantee that one can get a job even after earning a doctoral degree.”
Shah spoke of his disappointment and uncertainty. “Too many PhD doctors are competing for very few posts,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Many of us have accumulated good research credentials, but even that seems to be no longer matter.”
Rashid Jan, another PhD scholar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Charsadda district, says he is feeling desperate. He returned to Pakistan last year after completing his doctorate in biology in neighboring China. Months later, he says there are few prospects of a faculty position as the burden of looking after his six younger brothers, who are all unemployed, weighs heavily on him.
“We have spent everything on getting a good education, but when I look at the conditions here, I see no hope of getting a job,” he told Radio Mashaal while recounting his family’s struggles since his father’s death when he was young. “The economy has shrunk because of COVID. Our only hope is that our country’s economy will improve, which will in turn create jobs.”
Shah and Jan are among the estimated 3,000 doctorate degree holders without jobs, according to the PhD Association of Pakistan, an advocacy group working to secure employment for some of the most educated individuals in the country.
Their struggle is indicative of the policy dilemma faced by Islamabad, which has invested heavily in rapidly increasing the number of doctoral degree holders but has failed to provide them employment at the country’s mostly public sector universities, where senior faculty members often hold on to jobs for decades. Jobs are limited with fewer private institutions, a diminishing culture of research and development, a nationwide economic downslide, and rampant government censorship.
Sher Afzal, the head of the association, says their protest marches and demonstrations have so far failed to change the situation. He says the number of his fellow unemployed PhD scholars, many of whom have degrees in the hard sciences, has rapidly increased since 2015 and few are finding jobs.
“The government is doing nothing to help us get jobs,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Whenever we meet government ministers or other senior officials, we have urged them to prefer the PhD degree holders in [academic and research] jobs,” he said alluding to their main grievance that such positions are given to people who don’t have PhDs. “But they seem to have no clue and have not formulated a policy yet to address our predicament,” he said.
Faisal Bari, a professor of economics and education at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, argues that “it is a tremendous travesty -- and a waste of resources, human and capital -- if students go through 20-plus years of education, end up with a PhD, and still cannot find jobs when universities are desperate for [qualified] faculty,” he wrote while noting the contradiction that while universities need more scholars they are unable to create jobs to hire them.
In an op-ed, he blamed the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) policies for the mess. “In an effort to increase numbers, compromises on quality have been substantial,” he noted. “This needs to be remedied. For existing scholars, we might have to offer skills development programs.”
In an op-ed last month, HEC head Tariq Banuri argued that Islamabad needs to reform the tenure-track system and find a way to reconcile it with the Basic Pay Scale system, which the country uses to reward and promote government workers in all of its departments, including universities. “The time has come to address these differences and begin the process of convergence between the two systems,” he wrote last month.
The HEC wants to move the system of academic appointments and promotions away from one based on seniority to something based on merit and the individual scholarly standing of faculty members.
But the HEC has faced budget cuts in the current fiscal year. Amid a declining economy, the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan appears to have given up on delivering the 1 million jobs he promised Pakistan’s 220 million people during his election campaign in 2018.
“We have plans for providing loans to the youth so they can create employment for themselves,” Naeem Gul, a senior official with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Youth Affairs department, told Radio Mashaal about a government scheme that gives graduates a $13,000 loan to start a business.
“Still, it is difficult to generate employment for the tens of thousands of people who graduate from our universities every year,” he noted.
Last week, the World Bank forecasted a pessimistic economic outlook for Islamabad. “In Pakistan, the recovery is expected to be subdued, with growth at 0.5pc in FY2020-21,” the organization said in its Global Economic Prospects report.