Monday June 27, 2022

Education emergency

February 05, 2020

A former prime minister of the UK was once asked about the three top priorities of his government. Without any hesitation his response was “Education, Education, Education”.

Lip service has been paid to education for the past seven decades in Pakistan, with little attention being paid to this critically important sector. The result is a nation with so much potential but which is drowned in debt because of sham democratic systems. These have resulted from the repeated exploitation of illiterate masses, so that the same corrupt leaders can be elected into power, with the exception of the present leadership. We need to break free from the past and the only sustainable way of doing so is through quality education for all.

I spent 9nine years at the University of Cambridge, first as a PhD student and later in the late 60s and early 70s as Fellow of Kings College. Later I was elected as an Honorary Life Fellow at Kings College, University of Cambridge. This experience has given me the opportunity of understanding the highly competitive environment of a university constantly ranked among the top five universities. It is a stunning reality that 107 faculty members and affiliates of the University of Cambridge have been awarded the Nobel Prize since 1904 : 32 in Physics, 26 in Medicine, 25 in Chemistry, 11 in Economics, three in Literature and two in Peace. One single college of that university, Trinity College, has produced 33 Nobel Laureates.

Now sit back and think how far we have sunk. Not a single Nobel Prize in science has ever been awarded to a single scientist in recognition of work carried out within Islamic countries. Prof Abdus Salam from Pakistan got his Nobel Prize in Physics but it was for work carried out in the UK while Zuwail Ahmed from Egypt got his Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work carried out in the US.

The Islamic world has produced only four Fellows of Royal Society (London) in the last 370 years, of which three were elected for their research carried out outside the OIC region (Prof Abdus Salam for his research in the UK, Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui for his research in India, and Prof M Akhtar for his work in UK). I happen to be the fourth person, and the only Fellow of the Royal Society elected in recognition of research carried out in Pakistan. My induction as a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) was a truly humbling moment of my life.

So what went wrong? Why does this darkness prevail? In ‘O’ Level and ‘A’ Level exams our students fare as well as the best of British students, because they are a part of the British system of education. This clearly shows the huge creative potential in our youth that can be unleashed with a challenging educational environment that stretches the youth to perform at their best.

The problem is that the majority of our government schools do not offer the same quality of education as that available through the Cambridge overseas examination system, while the standards in colleges and universities are poor, except for pockets of excellence. Excellent progress was made after the Higher Education Commission was established. Some of our universities had gained respectable international rankings during 2002-2008, with several ranked among the top 300, 400 and 500 of the world. However, we quickly slipped back, largely because of lack of sustainable support and, alas, there are none in the top 500 of the world rankings now.

The government needs to declare an education emergency and launch historic and visionary initiatives to bring about a major change. Education should be made a federal subject with the modification of the 18th Amendment. There should be one national board and one national exam at school and college levels to ensure uniformity of standards.

All students passing out of colleges and universities should be required to carry out one year national service as teachers in schools and colleges before being able to get their degrees. This will result in the availability of hundreds of thousands of teachers. Those university teachers that can obtain 80 percentile in at least three subjects related to their field in International GRE exams should be given an additional Rs100,000 monthly allowance.

The original four-fold higher salary structure in the Tenure Track system, as compared to the BPS system, should be restored and all new inductions of faculty in universities should be exclusively on the tenure track system with regular international evaluation before grant of permanency. The BPS system should be, eventually, scrapped.

An additional Rs50,000 per month allowance should be given to all those school and college teachers who can pass at least three subjects including English in Cambridge A level Exams with ‘A’s. The number of teachers that will pass this barrier will be very small but it will lead to many trying, and many new teachers with excellent background being inducted as teachers.

All government servants should be legally required to send their children to the nearest government school – this should be a mandatory requirement in their service contract. It will have a huge impact on the school system. There should be one national eligibility exam and interview process for university teachers, as practised in Turkey, prior to final selection by respective universities. A major fund should be launched to facilitate university industry interactions.

The allocations for education should be tripled in the national budget. Technical education should be uplifted by converting 50 of our best technical schools to teacher training centres in collaboration with top technical education institutions in Europe, Australia and China, with international quality assurance. Provincial HECs should be required to focus exclusively on college level education to avoid overlap of functions of the federal HEC.

These measures, taken under a National Education Emergency declared by the prime minister, can help rapidly change the landscape of education in Pakistan and help us build a strong knowledge-based economy.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).