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Friday October 22, 2021

Where were the professors?

September 23, 2021

In a recent article in these pages, a writer rewarded Pakistani academia with a collective F for its members’ supposed lack of participation in an important education debate: that on the recently launched Single National Curriculum.

This article isn’t about the SNC, though. It is a humble attempt by one of those failed academics to help both the writer and readers gain better context to what exactly academia might have been so preoccupied with since March 2020.

Let’s start with the trivial matter of Covid-19, which naturally pales in comparison to the SNC if Twitter is the singular metric by which one measures the health of Pakistan’s discourse or policy response. By nightfall of the 13th of March 2020, the first sector in the country to have visibly and clearly come under lockdown pressure was – no, not health – education. Schools and universities were overnight instructed to completely close campuses/premises and switch to some form of remote instruction and learning.

With alarming digital divides, and chaotic confusion around the epidemiology of the disease, the first order of business for academics around the country was to complete ongoing coursework digitally. Next was to plan for a potential couple of more semesters of closure. In addition to teaching responsibilities, university professors and lecturers faced critical decisions around how to transition all non-teaching roles online. I was one of the lucky: my university already had a digital Learning Management System set up. I know folks who taught an entire semester over WhatsApp.

Our challenge could have included literally anything: internet connectivity; the best low-tech platform to reach students in remote parts of Pakistan; execute a conference online; launch a research centre in the middle of a pandemic; secure research funding when economies were in freefall; conduct a full admissions cycle online; build (maybe) some kind of relationship with 1000s of students online; advise the NCOC on what universities needed; counsel students academically and emotionally; recreate creative chit chat with colleagues.

But what else did we do? Faisal Bari wrote actively and critically – since October 2019 – about the cautions and concerns of the SNC. In a LUMS Live session in August 2020 on the SNC, he sat alongside two other members of the academic community – one was me. I may not be a well-known face of the SNC – which is a personal choice – but I have remained a regular member of our country’s curriculum council. I have provided research-driven analysis and thinking to different levels of the federal ministry’s representatives as and whenever possible, knowing such advice may not always be accommodatable.

One of our academic colleagues is now the director of the National Curriculum. This is the first time since the 1970s that an education policy post at the national level is returning to an individual of technical, academic background. Incidentally, the academic in question was the feature of a number of public debates on the SNC, often in a (healthy) contest with other professors from other public and private universities in Pakistan. Some of these other professors wrote repeatedly for national dailies, whether op-eds or as specialised features.

Whether trained in Physics (Pervez Hoodbhoy), or of a social sciences orientation – linguistic history (Tariq Rahman); sociology (Anjum Altaf); gender studies (Rubina Saigol) – Pakistani academics consistently returned to the question of the SNC through the use of multiple manifestations of voice.

But one of the most curious aspects to the entire SNC process began with the slightly underwhelming ad posted in a newspaper in 2019. Inviting universities with education faculties to submit technical proposals to advise the federal ministry on teacher education and assessment frameworks in line with the principles of the SNC, this tender signalled something important: the willingness to build scholarship into its rightful place – feedback to policymakers on (in)effective decisions for education.

The bid ultimately was awarded to the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development, where professors like Fareed Panjwani wrote back lengthy pages of insight to curriculum sub-committees for incorporation into curriculum design. This, in addition to the efforts of other researchers, instructors, and programme members from AKU in Pakistan, who provided more specific advice on teacher training and exam reform to the federal government’s curricular exercise.

Whether because we are a society in habit of disregarding the efforts of its teachers (school and university); or because academics tend to quietly go about their work; because Covid-19 really did shake up the foundations of contemporary education service delivery – whatever the reasons may be, universities and their professors seemingly failed all of this country’s students. I just wanted to put some of that record straight.

The writer is assistant professor at the School of Education, LUMS.