Reform by whim

July 04, 2020

Sometime in the late 90s, when I was nearing graduation at UET Taxila, we got the news that the government is adding memorization of part of the Quran as a graduation requirement.Being grade...

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Sometime in the late 90s, when I was nearing graduation at UET Taxila, we got the news that the government is adding memorization of part of the Quran as a graduation requirement.

Being grade conscious I dreaded the prospects of having to do additional work towards my degree, particularly when it was an arbitrarily assigned task that was not part of my training to become a more capable professional engineer. There were a hundred other things I could work on at the time. Eventually, however, we got word that the proposal would not move ahead, and I exhaled.

More than 20 years later, a similar requirement has been reintroduced, this time as the brainchild of Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar. The rationale given for it is that “only by following the teachings of the Quran can the world be improved. It is vital for Muslim students to understand religion and protect themselves from extremism and bigotry.” One would ask though that, now of all times, when the higher education budget is being strangled, is this the best use of limited time and resources?

More likely, this is an easy publicity stunt by a government that has not been able to deliver anything in two years, one that relies on exploiting people’s religious sentiments. Governor Sarwar’s children studied at universities in the UK, and from what I can tell, at least one of them managed to become an elected representative of his community. I doubt his alma maters required him to study the scripture as a prerequisite to graduate. In case the honorable governor is unaware of Pakistani history, the study of Islamiyat has been mandatory all through school and all the way through to the bachelors level. One wonders how doing more of the same at age 18-22 will fix the problems we face in our shared sense of citizenship.

US News (famous for its rankings of US universities) also compiles an annual ‘Best Countries Ranking.’ factors considered include things such as quality of life, ease of doing business, heritage, cultural influence, citizenship, etc. (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/overall-rankings). For 2020 the top-10 list includes Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, UK, US, Sweden, Netherlands, and Norway, in that order. None of the countries in this list require their school or university students to recite the scripture.

Yet, somehow, one politician got it in his head, and university vice chancellors (VCs) of public universities (who report to him) seem to have fallen in line. This is the reason why important reforms should never be put in the hands of one man, but be given to committees of experts and stakeholders, where the misguided whims of one individual are checked by debate and collective decision making.

If this is the kind of leadership university VCs can expect to receive, we have to wonder if we would not be better off putting more distance between governors, generally not interested in matters of education anyway, and ever distracted by more urgent demands on their time like political maneuvers and the day-to-day business of running their provinces.

This brings me to the other big university related news. We learnt of changes that may be coming to the Public Universities Act in the form of an amendment. Based on news coverage, opinion makers, faculty and administrators are arrayed against the proposed amendment. The most frequently cited objection is that the amendment infringes on the autonomy of universities. I have a slightly less black-and-white take on the issue.

Presently, an overview of the Board of Governors (BoG) of public universities in Pakistan yields a similar picture. VCs / presidents of universities are also chairing their BoG. By being the chairperson of their own BoG, the degree to which the board can hold them accountable is limited. Other members include administrative heads of the university and its colleges, a handful of senior faculty members, bureaucrats that can be helpful to the university (from the ministries of education, finance, etc), HEC officials, VCs of other universities, elected representatives (MPAs), etc. Notably absent are stakeholders key to the core operations of universities, ie, representatives of students and junior and mid-level career faculty members.

A key change proposed in the amendment, reported to be about 60+ pages long, is the removal of VC from chairpersonship of their BoG. I view that as a positive change, because it will make the VC accountable to the BoG and distance him / her from the governor. BoGs are more accessible and can be more attentive in their exercise of closer oversight.

For reference, consider how it’s done in public universities in the US: University presidents are accountable to their BoG (often called the Board of Trustees or Board of Regents), which collectively holds the power to appoint and remove university officers, including faculty and the university president. Members are elected by residents of the state, are unpaid, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds (fund raising, industry, PR, politics, etc). They are assisted in their work by liaison members representing students, faculty and others. As you can see, the amendment in the works in Punjab would move the constitution of Punjab’s public universities’ BoGs closer to what is the case in public universities in the US.

However, the changes the amendment would bring are not all positive. Reportedly, it will also require that the chairperson of the BoG be appointed by the governor on the advice of the chief minister, and be a retired senior judge or a bureaucrat (civilian or otherwise). While requiring a senior judge or civil service officer can be seen as a means to guarantee that the chairperson will be educated up to at least the bachelors level, I fail to understand how senior armed forces officers can qualify to oversee the operations of an institution of higher learning.

The amendment also adds elected student and faculty representatives from all levels of seniority to the BoG, giving voice to key stakeholders on the BoG. Incomprehensibly, however, the amendment also adds not one, not two, but three “religious scholars” to the BoG.

The changes to the checks and balances that the amendment would bring cannot guarantee perfect accountability inside universities. Perhaps nothing can if more than some critical mass of players decides to game the system of checks. However, it is not hard to see that it brings more accountability to universities than we have now, where presently VCs can reign like kings as long as they manage to keep a constituency of one, the governor, satisfied.

As the newly imposed graduation requirement for students in Punjab shows, all it takes VCs to retain their position is to indulge the whims and impulses of one politician.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Email: arazzaquegmail.com



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