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July 14, 2018

Redefining scholarship


July 14, 2018

The normal perception in Pakistan about university teachers is that they don’t read much other than the textbooks they are supposed to teach. A general reading of newspapers and magazines especially is not a preferred pastime of faculty members.

But this perception was modified when my last column ‘Hassles of higher education’, published on July 8, prompted dozens of faculty members to express their thoughts about higher education in Pakistan. Most of the readers felt that there is a dearth of discussion on higher education matters in the country.

First, I stand corrected. My perception was wrong; there are still many faculty members who do read newspapers and are willing to share their ideas if a forum is provided. It is a sad fact that in the plethora of political writings and opinion pieces, some of the most important issues of social development get neglected. In this concluding part of my article on higher education, I share some of the ideas and thoughts that readers sent in their emails and messages.

Most readers, such as Dr Afshan Huma from the Allama Iqbal Open University, expressed their confidence in the new chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Dr Tariq Banori. She hoped that he would rectify, at least, some of the problems faced by the faculty and students in higher education. Some others, such as Dr Faheem Khan, a PhD in agriculture who has been jobless in Pakistan, was angry that the new chairman is all praise for the former chairmen, including the last one, who according to Dr Faheem Khan was responsible for mismanagement and corruption at the HEC.

This is a common problem in our academic, political and social circles; we fail to admit our mistakes. This tendency is more pronounced in our state institutions where all past mistakes and wrong policies have been, and are being, defended shamelessly. If a doctor administers a wrong medicine, perhaps the first step is to realise and understand what went wrong. Dr Faheem Khan is right in suggesting that just by praising all former chairmen of the HEC the new chairman is unlikely to learn from their mistakes. First, a strong critique is needed to grasp the depth of the rot.

A major concern of faculty members and research scholars is lack of transparency in providing data about research scholarships. The complaint goes something like this: the HEC grants research scholarships both domestically and internationally; four to five million rupees are spent on a domestic PhD and eight to 10 million on a foreign PhD. But the HEC does not disclose on its website the details of how many such scholars actually completed their doctoral studies, in what subjects, and what they are doing now. There have been many – in fact very many – cases in which either the candidates failed to complete their research studies or didn’t return to the country.

Many readers cited concrete examples – and this writer can also testify to such cases – in which the scholarship holders, despite receiving full payments including accommodation and subsistence expenses, took up jobs in foreign countries. This writer has been an eyewitness to many such cases in the UK where HEC-funded scholars were even ready to do all sorts of odd jobs. Any kind of job is perfectly alright, even this writer did many so-called odd jobs for he lacked any scholarship from the HEC while pursuing his doctoral studies, but doing so and also receiving full-funding from the HEC is unethical and unlawful.

The HEC also fails to offer information about how many PhD-holders are jobless in Pakistan, and why. According to some readers, the number is in the thousands. The HEC needs to conduct a detailed study of PhD-holders who have failed to secure a job in the country. One reason for this is the poor quality of education they have received mainly in Pakistan. As pointed out in my previous column, when degrees are awarded to candidates who lack the requisite knowledge and skills in their fields, the degree is not going to help them get a job.

Another reason is the superior training they receive in foreign universities, when they come back they become misfits. Another reader, Commodore (r) Najeeb Anjum who claims to have been “practicing the art of teaching for over four decades”, thinks that if the new chairman tries to make major changes, 90 percent of the teaching staff will not support him, because they don’t want to change or work according to the requirements of the 21st century. According to him, “our current dysfunctional education system neither has the capacity nor sustainability”.

I find this remark a bit too harsh. There are problems for sure, but it is not too dysfunctional to be corrected. However, I do find some of his other observations pertinent and quotable, such as: the teaching staff’s “capabilities are limited...their cognitive development has not taken place effectively. They are the product of rot (sic) memorisation and coaching centres. Their personality development has not taken place and [they] are socially backward.” Well, you can say that again.

Commodore Anjum goes on with his lamentation: “The Humanities faculties are given a step-motherly treatment. How in [the] absence of the Humanities [can] the culture of debate, declamation, dramas, annual magazines take firm root...Liberal and enlightened views are [a] far cry. Student societies cannot function if proper leadership is not provided to students. The current crop of teachers [was] not acquainted with these kinds of activities when they were students. I have never heard of debate contests [taking place] in universities in Karachi. You will be surprised that in Karachi’s 275 intermediate public and private colleges, hardly 15 colleges have regular Students Week.”

Professor Qudsia Kulsoom of the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore stressed the need to strengthen the provincial HECs and also highlighted the poor performance of foreign qualified PhDs.

She wrote: “Among the 12 foreign qualified faculty members (I know), no one has ever been able to [get] publish[ed] in prestigious, international journals. Most of their publications are in ‘Z’ and ‘Y’ category journals (as specified by [the] HEC). These journals are the ones where you can [get] publish[ed] easily if the editor is your friend or you add [the] editor’s name as a co-author or bribe the editor in some other way. Local PhDs also [get] publish[ed] in these journals. Question is: how [is] the scholarly quality of foreign PhDs better than [the] local PhDs? It is, in fact, not. A foreign PhD is not a determinant of scholarship.”

I agree with some of the points raised by Prof Kulsoom. But let me clarify that holding a PhD from any university or even getting published in journals is not a ‘determinant of scholarship’. This writer personally knows many PhDs, from both foreign and local universities, who can hardly be called scholars in the true sense of the word. And there are many scholars who are not PhDs but have contributed tremendously to a particular, or even to multiple fields. The international system of giving too much credit to citations, papers and PhDs is highly flawed and needs a major overhaul.

And lastly, Sahib Khan from Mehran University appreciated the need for establishing and strengthening the provincial HECs. This discussion is concluded here, but we will get back to education, as the topic is close to my heart.

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

Email: [email protected]