When the courts have to intervene in routine matters – which should otherwise be managed by the concerned institutions – there’s something amiss. The Lahore High Court had to appoint three acting vice-chancellors in public-sector universities, as these appointments had been a subject of controversy for quite some time.
The imbroglio surfaces when a politically connected VC doesn’t want to relinquish his post after completing the stipulated tenure and others – who are rightfully aspiring for the coveted post – are denied the opportunity to move up the ladder. The court had to remove Dr Mujahid Kamran from his post of acting VC of the University of Punjab. Before his appointment as the acting VC, Dr Kamran had already completed two tenures of four years each as the VC of the university.
During his extension of four years, someone – who was both a deserving aspirant and in the line of promotion – might have missed his chance and retired. Retiring gracefully has never been the forte of academics and bureaucrats. They tend to hang on to their seats for as long as they can.
The situation in Sindh is even grimmer. After the arrest of Dr Asim Hussain, who was the chairperson of the Sindh Higher Education Commission, the commission has only hibernated. As a result, important universities, including the Karachi University, are functioning without full-fledged vice-chancellors.
The academic scene at public-sector universities is indeed disheartening. Politics of patronage pervades the higher education sector. The competition among the contestants for the VC’s post in public sector universities is fierce. As the honourable academics – professors and doctors – lobby to occupy this slot at universities, their counterparts in foreign universities think differently. Many of them shun the idea of becoming VCs.
The professors in foreign universities consider the VC’s position to be of a purely administrative nature, which, they think, denies them the opportunity and time to carry out research and write papers to publish in reputed journals. Writing research papers adds to an academic’s credentials. Because the environment in most of our universities is less research-oriented, the professors prefer working on easygoing administrative appointments within universities rather than preparing for lectures and teaching classes.
In countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia, providing higher education to foreign students is a huge source of earning. Many of our students pay heavy fees to study in prestigious foreign universities to obtain credible degrees. Why can’t our universities provide the same standard of education to our own students?
Why hasn’t the Punjab University – which is sprawled over hundreds of acres of land and has a majestic VC residence – been able to achieve the status of a centre of excellence? Each year, the university rolls out hundreds of PhDs. What’s the worth of their doctorates is anybody’s guess. The passers-by know the university because of its students who often protest on the canal banks and block the traffic.
Moreover, the trend that should be discouraged is naming the colleges and universities after politicians. This should be allowed only if the politicians had provided from their personal accounts to set up these institutions. If the institutions were established entirely on public funds, why should they be named after the politicians?
For instance, there are six universities named after Benazir Bhutto in various cities, two after members of Bacha Khan’s clan – one in Mardan and another in Charsadda. An engineering university in Multan functions under the name of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Similarly, GIK Institute of Science and Technology was named after former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Even though the institute has produced excellent engineers, many of them have unfortunately left the country to seek greener pastures abroad. A senior professor of the GIK Institute, Professor Fazal Ahmad Khalid, was appointed VC of the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore, purely on the basis of merit. The Punjab CM deserves the credit for this. If merit prevails in appointing faculty members, there’s nothing that can stop institutions from turning into centres of excellence.
However, in a recent meeting attended by VCs of more than 100 universities, the participants criticised the interference of the provincial governments in higher education institutions. One of the issues the academics unanimously deplored was the reduction in the tenure of the VCs from four years to three. One wonders if this issue has any relevance in making universities centres of excellence.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore.