Wednesday September 22, 2021

A note to university leaders

A few weeks ago, a family friend, a Pakistani professor working at a university in Jeddah, received an inquiry regarding one of his research papers from a graduate student enrolled in a computer science program at a university in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student’s message said he was interested in furthering the work of the professor and was requesting for the source code he had written for the original paper – a common enough request. The professor searched his work archive, found the requested code and shared it with the student.

A few days ago, the same student contacted the professor again. This time he had a longer tale to tell: His BS programme was very “theoretical” in nature and did not give him enough hands-on programming experience, his university suffers from frequent power outages and spotty internet connectivity. After listing these problems, he made an underhanded request to the professor to make some “improvements” to his own code (what improvements he does not know) and share it with him so he can pass it off as his own and “earn” his MS degree, because he is admittedly incapable of doing it himself for the reasons above.

This anecdote is exemplary of the lack of personal ownership many (not all) university students take, not of someone else’s, but their own futures. This observation applies equally regardless of whether they attend public or private institutions. The graduation from high-school and transition to college or university is the most significant because it marks the passage to adulthood, and the rights and responsibilities that brings with it. That makes it different from previous promotions to the next school grade.

The fact that many parents, colleges and universities continue to infantilize students by treating them like school children is explicitly demonstrated when faculty and administrative staff address them as ‘bachay’ (children). This would be considered unthinkable and insulting in the West where college students are clearly informed of their rights and responsibilities. The result is that many students, like the one whose story I recounted at the start, treat even their graduate dissertation (which ought to be their most original work) like a homework assignment to be scavenged together from the kindness of others and passed off as their own.

However, students are not the only ones to blame. The simple truth is, no one bothers to prepare students for how to do college and how to succeed.

University budgets are tight right now. Public universities are constrained by funding received from public sources, whereas private universities, which are not subsidized by public funds, have been operating in the high inflation environment for the last few years, which limits their ability to raise tuition fees. In the never-ending quest to improve the ways universities can serve students, that makes it prudent to consider what a World Bank report last year called “great buy” measures, albeit in the context of school education – low cost initiatives that have high impact.

Most university students studied either in the local Matric/FSc or Cambridge IGCSE / O/A-Level systems. While the syllabi and assessment methods in these school systems are undoubtedly very different, they share a key characteristic: both are annual school systems with end-of-school-year exams.

Over the last three decades universities, led by the private sector, have introduced the semester system in higher-education institutions. Regardless of which school system they come from, the transition to university is a big adjustment at which many freshmen stumble, at least initially. While the annual examination system lets students slack off for extended periods of time, the 16-week duration of a semester is packed with at least two or three major examinations and other assessments sprinkled throughout, for each course.

Wink, and you can miss a good chunk. I recall one of my grad school professors once telling me that if you missed a day of classes, you would have to spend a week catching up. Miss two weeks, and you are better off dropping out and retaking the course next semester. If you try to do justice to the reading materials, just five or six courses in a semester can get overwhelming. I am mentioning readings in particular because this is the first time students from the local school system struggle with reading and absorbing multiple books written by foreign authors every semester. That is why it is hard to overstate the importance of freshman students making a good start in university.

Students at American colleges face the same adjustment issues and the same workload challenges but are taught time-tested organizational tools to tackle them (eg, organized study-groups, time-management, course scheduling and registration) in well-organized orientation and pre-orientation sessions.

Study groups are typically made up of at most 10 students from the same programme, do not cost anything and are entirely organized by participating members by splitting up some time-consuming tasks (notes preparation, tutoring, etc) while working together on others (completing assignments, homework, projects, etc). They have established rules and best-practices and work only when all members adhere to them, with no place for freeloaders. A study group leader sets the agenda and distributes the work. A note taker, akin to a minute taker in official meetings, records and shares key decisions. Study groups teach teamwork and transferable, essential workplace skills.

Incoming students have an easier time adjusting to the pace of university semesters when they arrive prepared, knowing about study groups and other organizational skills beforehand. I recently got to observe the onboarding process at a top-20 North American university that a young woman from Pakistan is going through. Although the start of the semester is still two months away, the university already helped her find a study group of peers, select a leader, and taught her the rules of the group. They have been assigned a mock lecture to watch and prepare notes for and will go on to train them how to combine notes on a topic from multiple sources. All this is happening before stepping foot on-campus.

Programmes using semester systems often have more complicated graduation requirements (university, college, and programme requirements) and dependencies between courses (prerequisites and corequisites) that have to be fulfilled. For one particular student, those can typically add up to a checklist of 20 to 30 items. These requirements can become convoluted, especially in programmes that allow a significant degree of tailoring and freedom in choosing courses, as is increasingly the case in many universities in Pakistan as well.

A large number of students with unique circumstances means students need to be responsible for tracking their own progress towards timely graduation. Carelessness can create situations where students near the end of their programmes discover they missed a graduation requirement and have to spend time beyond the minimum four years taking another course, delaying their graduation, wasting time and money. That is why this is another area for which universities often organize workshops to train them how to plan and track their progress to graduation and choose courses each semester.

There are many other sessions providing mental health resources, networking and Q&A sessions with senior students of different programs, tip-sheets for first-years, training for various online systems students will use, and exam study tips. These preparatory programmes are conducted mostly by volunteer students from senior years and have a small cost because they are delivered online.

The pandemic has given students the world over a lot of practice with online meeting tools which is what universities have been using as well. Attendance is voluntary, to set the tone for the rest of the programme: universities will provide the tools for success but entering university is crossing a threshold beyond which students are, in large part, responsible for their own choices. With another month to go until the start of the academic year, Pakistani university leaders ought to consider going beyond giving incoming students the customary motivational speech. Instead, they could give them some practical tools for success, change academic culture for the better but without negative impact to the bottom line.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.