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Opinion

July 8, 2018
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Hassles of higher education

Opinion

July 8, 2018

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Oh, what a pleasure it was to listen to Dr Tariq Banuri. The new chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was invited to a reception on June 4 by the Inter-University Consortium for the Promotion of Social Sciences (IUCPSS).

The consortium has been working since 2012 to promote not only the social sciences but also arts and humanities. Murtaza Noor, a higher education expert, is the coordinator of the initiative while Dr Nasir Ali Khan, a senior educationist, is currently leading the consortium.

The best feature of the event was that it had only three speakers: Dr Nasir Ali Khan, Dr Imtiaz Gilani and Tariq Banuri. The three speakers highlighted the importance of the social sciences in community-building. They argued that the social sciences and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are the two pillars on which any sound education system is built. For the benefit of readers, some of the thoughts put forward by the three speakers are shared here.

Dr Nasir Ali Khan highlighted that though a lot has been done to promote STEM subjects during the 16 years of HEC’s existence, the arts and humanities have not been given the importance that they deserve. He informed the audience about the work that is being done by the consortium to promote the social sciences. Research in this sphere is lagging in Pakistan and most scholarships are awarded to students who opt for research in STEM subjects. He lamented that even many professors in social science departments lack the required knowledge and skills to guide their students to produce any research that is worthwhile and beneficial for the country.

Dr Imtiaz Gilani is an articulate speaker. He directly connected the eruption of violence in any country with the lack of interest in social science education. Gilani asked the diplomats present at the event to not send munitions to developing countries and instead “send us books and reading materials” so that there is no need for munitions. Dr Gilani was sharp in his observations and recalled his long association with Tariq Banuri that goes back decades. Dr Gilani admitted that the teachers of this country have a lot to answer for the sorry state of affairs in the country.

Dr Tariq Banuri won the hearts of the audience with his eloquence. With a PhD in economics from Harvard University and a long list of research publications to his credit, Banuri is the most suitable academic to lead the HEC. Though he talked about many things, three points stood out from his extempore address. The first was his emphasis on empowering students. He talked about his own days as a student leader and pointed out that he was the first HEC chairman who served as the president of a student union. Banuri wants his students to succeed. For this reason, he wants to empower students.

Although he did not elaborate on his plan for student empowerment, he is likely to encourage the formation of bodies that can express the concerns of students. One problem that he may face in this process is the domination of the religious right on campuses. We have seen lately that if students want to organise any drama, dance and music events at universities, there tend to be self-styled custodians of religion who come out in droves to scuttle any attempt to do so.

Similarly, when students want to discuss so-called ‘sensitive’ issues, there are attempts by many powerful forces to stop any such discussions. This is what was experienced also at a recent seminar at Habib University in Karachi. In order to promote the social sciences, the first step is to allow a dynamic culture of debate without being offended.

The second point that Dr Banuri raised was about his desire to see his faculty to succeed. Once again, he did not have time to go into details. But Dr Banuri wants his faculty members to make progress in academic circles, conduct research and publish papers. While this desire is a welcome move, we must not forget that the number of substandard publications has increased manifold during the past decade. Many writers, including Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr A H Nayyar, and this writer, have been highlighting this issue to no avail. The rot is too deep to excise easily. Dr Banuri will have to conduct profound reengineering to stem the flow of rubbish from our universities.

The third concern that Dr Banuri addressed was on how to transform universities so that they can succeed. He rightly pointed out that he wanted universities in Pakistan to be self-governing and autonomous bodies, with minimal external interference. Here, he has identified one of the major causes of the decline in higher education: bureaucratic and political meddling into the academic and administrative affairs of universities. The universities in Pakistan – both private and public – have suffered a great deal at the hands of non-academic outsiders.

In private universities, it is the owners – who in most cases are businessmen – that have a financial stake in an ever-increasing enrollment, even at the cost of admitting those who don’t qualify to be at the university level. As an educationist, this writer has witnessed gross violations of academic criteria in admitting and passing students just for the sake of the exorbitant fees that many private universities charge. This is also reflected in the way these institutions compromise on the quality of their faculty. Many ‘professors’ with dubious credentials are recruited and hired just because they are available at cheaper salary packages.

At public universities, such interference is not driven by financial motives; rather these institutions become victims of political favouritism and rent-seeking. There have been instances when universities were forced to appoint people who didn’t qualify on the basis of merit but were sent by a high civil or military bureaucrat or by a political big shot.

There have also been examples in which financial favours were sought from the university management in exchange for a top position at the university. This writer has also witnessed doctoral degrees being awarded to candidates who clearly don’t qualify for them.

There are many ‘universities’ that have become factories that ‘produce’ PhDs. In Islamabad, there are degree-awarding institutions – not under complete academic control – that have been churning out doctoral theses and awarding degrees to those who have become a blot on the academic credentials of Pakistan’s higher education sector. Even in the HEC, there have been appointments of civil and military officers who have no academic backgrounds. Some have worked at a school or a cadet college and now decide the fate of university teachers.

There is, however, one neglected area that no speaker addressed at the event: the need to strengthen provincial HECs. After the 18th Amendment, education at all levels has been devolved to the provinces. The Punjab and Sindh governments have established their provincial HECs, which need financial resources and academic support rather than bullying and intimidation from the federal HEC. Dr Banuri would do a great service by devising a strategy to help the next provincial governments establish HECs in Balochistan and KP, and guiding the HECs in Punjab and Sindh to perform better.

The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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