Thursday May 23, 2024

Covid-19 and campuses

By Dr Manzoor Ali Isran
May 29, 2020

Where Covid-19 has disrupted economic and cultural life, it has also interrupted our social and educational life. All human activity has come to a crushing standstill and educational institutions have been shut down.

According to observational research by Unicef, 186 countries are currently implementing nationwide closures. Approximately, two billion learners are currently affected due to school closures in response to the pandemic. In response to the closure of educational institutions, Unesco has recommended the use of distance learning programmes and open platforms that educational institutions and teachers can use to reach students remotely and limit the disruption of education.

Universities around the world are grappling with the after-effects of Covid-19. Some universities have decided to go online and others have cancelled classes. In Pakistan, the top regulatory body, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), has directed all universities to conduct online classes. In this regard, it laid down the framework for a Learning Management System (LSM), under which all universities and Degree Awarding Institutions (DAIs) are required to commence online lectures/classes.

No doubt, the HEC’s decision to transition to online classes has been widely appreciated by society. Most private universities such as LUMS, IBA, Habib, SZABIST, IoBM, Iqra and MAJU have begun online classes without losing any precious time for students, as they were already equipped with a robust Management and Information System (MIS), complete with digitized examination and admission systems.

I remember when our faculty was called for training on online lecturing software such as Skype for Business and Google meet, the IT team worked diligently to create thousands of IDs for students and teachers and an eLearning portal for online classes that facilitated teachers using either Skype for Business or Google meet to invite registered students to their class portals. Other universities have worked in the same manner and due to the hard work of their IT departments, teachers and students, the spring semester is approaching its end and preparation for the summer semester and admissions for 2020 are underway.

However, amidst the soaring Covid-19 cases and repeat WHO warnings about a probable second peak, private universities are not going to operate conventionally any time soon. These institutions are bound to face a financial hit as admissions for the 2020 academic year may slump with students unwilling to shell out anywhere from Rs100,000-Rs600,000 per semester for virtual classes and without the hallmarks of a campus experience. It is feared that private education, a multibillion businesses, may go for redundancies. But the real picture will emerge once admission processes are over.

With regard to public-sector universities, it is sad to note that they have been unable to initiate online classes despite being provisioned by the HEC and the provincial government with massive funds to build IT infrastructure. Instead of working on designing a Management and Information System (MIS), these universities bought hardware and dumped it in the laboratories. No records of examination, admission and administration have been computerized. The universities still work under manual systems, which is the major problem in switching to online classes. Online classes invariably require an effective and efficient MIS, a user-machine interface system for providing information to support organizational operations, management and analysis and decision-making functions.

The reason for not developing MIS in universities is attributed to the rising volume of corruption as the management in multiple public-sector universities fear that the introduction of an MIS would expose the corruption that has so far pounded the very bases of higher education. This writer formerly worked at a public university and saw first-hand how politically appointed vice chancellors created a cesspool of corruption that contaminated the quality of education. Teachers and employees are deliberately corrupted through illicit perks and privileges. Universities are facing financial bankruptcies to the extent that some universities in Sindh are even not able to pay pension to their retired employees.

Amid this deteriorating financial and administrative situation, the government is bent upon opening up university campuses in every district. This won’t add anything to the quality of education but will rather worsen the standard of higher education and degrade university degrees. Our politicians have zero interest in ensuring quality education. To them universities are not centers of learning but job factories that are being stuffed with docile political workers. The result is the utter failure of universities to serve as centers of Research and Development that can serve as counselors to the government and to private industry in modernizing the nation’s production processes and management in a plethora of sectors.

The situation we are facing on campuses begs the question: who is responsible for the state of chaos in our universities?

Apparently, there is no single factor responsible for the dilapidating state of higher education and capacity of campuses to deal with situations like the one created by Covid-19. These factors range from poor leadership, structural weakness, lack of merit in the appointment of faculty and staff, lack of motivation in both teaching and administrative staff to lack of resources and rising mismanagement and corruption (moral and financial). But to me the mother of all evils is political interference, which has devastating consequences for universities in terms of unfortunate management and their lack of capacity to impart quality education.

Ironically, the appointment of a CEO at a public university is guided by loyalty and corruption rather than merit. And this paradigm of higher education invariably draws inspiration from colonial educational models of the British Raj where the educational system was intended to perform two main tasks: first, to create a faithful ruling elite who would serve the interests of colonial rulers and second, to produce a class of lower-level local functionaries to help in daily administration.

Clearly education, unlike in the West, is not considered a means of promoting democracy or spreading egalitarianism, or spurring social mobility. On the contrary, its role is to maintain the status quo, to strengthen the ruling class, to make them wiser and better rulers to reinforce the ideology upon which power of the elite rested.

At the moment, the system of higher education, based on an elitist ideology, is producing an educational apartheid in Pakistan where there exists a dual educational system right from primary to higher education. On the one hand, there are elitist institutions where only the offspring of the rich can afford to study and, on the other hand, children from less privileged backgrounds are receiving education of inferior quality from the poorly-managed public-sector universities.

This educational apartheid has been exposed by the coronavirus where we see that some universities, especially private, are able to conduct online classes but public universities are struggling to start, resulting in a huge educational loss for students from poor families.

Given the situation, it is imperative for the HEC and provincial governments that mostly control universities administratively to take drastic measures to reform higher education by improving the standard of education. Steps such as good management, the appointment of a vice chancellor on merit, curtailment of political interference and introduction of iron-handed accountability are necessary. If we do not take such measures, we are taking a path towards impending doom as a nation because it is the profession of education over which all other professions depend.

Education, therefore, is key to a nation’s progress and prosperity. Let us work for its healthy development.

The writer works as professor in the department ofmanagement sciences atSZABIST, Karachi.