In his article, titled ‘Clearing bureaucratic hurdles’ published in these pages on November 5, 2017, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed states that “[f]or Pakistan, education is the only gateway to the country’s prosperity and success and serves as a fundamental tool in bringing us at par with the highly competitive comity of nations”. This goes to the very heart of the existence of educational institutions.
Educational institutions, especially higher educational institutions (HEIs) are the primary transformational drivers for any country in terms of its economic, social and technological wellbeing. They contribute to the development of human capital and innovation capabilities, which ultimately contribute towards economic growth and international competitiveness.
But has our state created an enabling environment for our HEIs so that these institutions can shape and strengthen our economic and social domains? It is crucial to analyse the limitations of the institutional and regulatory elements that produce an enabling environment for our HEIs. Dr Mukhtar has rightfully lauded the HEC for its policies and interventions through which a number of HEIs have gained acclaim from their PhD-qualified faculty and research publications.
However, what is the real impact of these growth indicators on our economics and society? Why is it that our higher education institutions have considerably low international rankings and lag behind universities in China and India? Why are we not receiving any tangible gains from our academic scholars and their research on governance, professional practices and social policymaking?
Earlier this year, a team from a Pakistan-based HEI visited a leading UK university on a capacity-building trip. One of the team members was surprised that the university they were visiting conducted high-level research on sports and the Olympics so that the country’s teams can win international competitions. This exemplifies the level of conviction and confidence that these countries have on the research and knowledge that their HEIs produce.
Unfortunately, our HEIs have not done the same. It appears that the HEC and various HEIs have been quick to adopt the ‘publish or perish’ policy that is prevalent in Western countries and are operationalising it through the currently-practiced ranking and tenure track systems. However, they have completely overlooked the fact that academic research should have actual policymaking and practical implications. This reflects a major policy vacuum faced by our higher education sector. If it isn’t remedied, our HEIs will be unable to function as gateways to national prosperity and success.
In order to develop a knowledge economy and progress on its basis, the state ought to engage its HEI faculty as a contingent human capital resource in its policymaking and implementation functions. This must primarily be enabled through the state’s will. An appropriate set of objective-oriented operational mechanisms must also be implemented. The HEC should set up an office or a help-desk that could facilitate the collective working of the state and our HEIs. Steps have already been taken to identify and prioritise national challenges and academic needs within the Vision 2025. But these are merely demand-side measures and similar credentials should be registered on the supply side. These include assessing the research and knowledge strengths of national strategic importance that our HEIs already possess and formulating various policies to capitalise on them.
Parallel to the HEC’s involvement for mediating research-based linkages and the collaborations between the state and HEIs, there is an imminent need for public organisations that can fund academic research to shape public policies and make the public sector, businesses and other organisations more effective. Such organisations can be formed at both the federal and provincial levels and receive funds from government departments as well as from other sponsors.
Research awards from these organisations should be made through an open competition and must be subject to transparent processes of peer assessment and evaluation. Rigorous standards should be applied for all projects that these awards support. However, the awards should be prioritised by the national needs and the available research competencies.
With regard to the performance of HEIs at the social level, it is vital to address the challenge of a rising trend of radicalisation in campuses. In this respect, we can borrow ideas from societies that we consider to be civilised, advanced and moderate. In Australia and Britain, the school curriculum includes teaching national values to pupils. According to the headmaster of an English preparatory school, “we cannot put everyone in a single moral universe but we can teach them about cause and consequence, the value of charity and community and having values that are not able to be measured in material terms alone…we should be offering the children in our schools an education in morals and values for that would underpin their lives like nothing else”.
Developing curricular and co-curricular modules on the national values of Pakistan could act as suitable counter-narratives and deflect the emerging risk of our education-seeking youth being drifted (socially and nationally) astray. Extremism and violence are distant anti-social acts. Why should an educated Pakistani youth even drive on the wrong side of a road, violate traffic signals and queues or, for that matter, breach social and professional commitments? While the poor performance of law-enforcement agencies could arguably be a reason for the lack of a ‘trusting society’, it is our HEIs that have – whether negligently or deliberately – failed to weigh and teach moral values, civic sense and social sensitivity to our students.
Citizenship or national values have lost their strategic importance for our HEIs as they are not embraced by their visions or included within their mission statements. While these strategic policy statements emphasise on producing quality business leaders or health practitioners or engineers, they fail to improve the ‘quality’ of their graduates as human beings. Perhaps this is a major reason why those who belong to even the noblest of professions are indifferent towards malpractices. As a result, HEIs should initiate modules on national values and citizenship in our curricula and the schools (including seminaries) must follow suit.
For a social scientist, his/her intention to practice is determined by the fact that his/her knowledge and research should be measured less from academic journals and more from how his/her findings impact our lives. The primary motivation for an academic is to contribute to improving policy and practice.
The writer is an assistant professorat the Institute of Management Sciences in Peshawar.