Friday March 24, 2023

The downward spiral

August 09, 2020

The mandate of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) should now be to save higher education in Pakistan but quite aside from the fact that past actions of the HEC are responsible for the present state, I think the tipping point, much like that for climate change, has been crossed. Mir Taqi Mir would have equated the proposition with seeking a cure from the same apothecary’s son responsible for the ailment

Now when I think of either, I can’t help thinking of Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s quatrain:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

I have said it before and have no reason to change my mind that disastrous as operations like Gibraltar, Searchlight, and Badr were for the wellbeing of Pakistan, their damage was reversible. But the havoc that the HEC has wrought is not, simply because it has institutionalized mediocrity and mendacity and made sure that each succeeding generation of Pakistanis, on whom the future of the country depends, will be worse prepared than before. Locusts visit the country once in a decade and are considered a menace to agriculture. The HEC has ensured that all too many locusts are permanently installed in the hallways of higher education eating away its innards at will.

Where are the wise kings who set up this institution? They should all be brought into the dock and made to read from Shelley:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In case you wish to sample hell on earth, do sign up to be a referee for a Master’s thesis at many of the diploma mills the HEC has licensed as universities. If you wish to be reinvited you are required to pass the candidate. If you don’t, you are reminded by the faculty that “This is Pakistan”; one can’t be too strict here. A statement of pride has become one of apology.

Nine times out of ten, the thesis makes no sense whatsoever. There is no hypothesis and even if there is, it has little to do with the work. The English is close to gibberish. Through all this, one can sense that the student is not entirely brain dead, that he or she is struggling to express some thoughts.

A helpful suggestion to let the student write the thesis in a language that he or she might be more comfortable with is dismissed righteously as an assault on “our standards” – gibberish in English being valued more highly than quasi-sense in a local language. A suggested compromise to let the student write in a language of choice and have the thesis translated into English for submission after approval to comply with “our standards” is rejected because it would impose a cost on the student. This, after charging a fee for two years to teach virtually nothing, not even how to write passable English.

What is quite obvious from suffering through such an excruciating exercise is that the fault is not of the student. It is an abject failure of supervision. My charitable guess is that the supervisor has not bothered to read the thesis and never had any meeting at any juncture during its writing. At best, some handout has been passed out with directions for what is expected. Amongst the incentives the geniuses at the HEC have institutionalized to “promote” “cutting-edge” research are bonus payments per paper published and student supervised.

Anywhere else in the world this is part of the regular work of an academic. Anyone with any sense should have been able to point out the perversities inherent in such incentives especially where abusing incentives has become the norm. The rampant plagiarism of papers, proliferation of fake journals, and exploitation of supervisees is an unsurprising outcome.

This is the reason I think higher education is beyond the point of no return in Pakistan. These kinds of supervisors must have been students from an earlier generation who must have been passed because “This is Pakistan.” And the students they pass in turn will become the supervisors of the next generation. No amount of tinkering at the edges will negate the deadening weight of this human capital that has already swarmed over most of the higher education landscape in the country.

There is only one radical solution, but it is beyond the reach of the HEC – even though I am sure many there recognise the necessity. Anyone half in earnest should place all the Master’s level theses awarded by Pakistani universities in an open access archive and send a random sample of them to a panel outside the country for evaluation. The supervisors of all theses rejected by the panel should be instantly dismissed and any institution with a higher than five percent rejection rate should be closed down. Then one can begin to pick up the pieces.

This seems a drastic measure but drastic situations need drastic solutions. It is in line with the much milder proposal of Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy that all the course material being used for online teaching be placed in an open access archive so that we may know who is teaching from notes dating back to 1976. And we know what happened to Dr Hoodbhoy.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.