If higher education is to work, a real rethink of its vision and focus needs to be made
I have now been working in Pakistan for over eight years and have spent my time in two rather different universities. Both were relatively new (one was older but only got its university charter in 2004), and both were full of energy and eagerness to make their mark on the education map of Pakistan. My now almost equal time at both institutions has given me a deep and unique perspective into higher education issues in Pakistan and has made me contemplate possible solutions for it.
The problem with universities in Pakistan is simple, yet its simplicity makes it very complicated. There are two major issues with higher education institutions in Pakistan: Vision and Governance. Solve these two problems and higher education in the country will run smoothly and will produce the leading thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs we all yearn for and yet are unable to bring forth. Don’t focus on these two issues and we will continue to give degrees which usually are not even worth the paper they are printed on. Ignore these issues and soon we will have millions of people with ‘degrees’ but no jobs as these degree mills are ill-equipped to fashion students for the present market. The social, economic and political repercussions of ignoring this basic yet critical reform in higher education are patent and we will only ignore it at out peril.
First comes the issue of vision. What is the real point of a higher education institution? This question is simply not tackled in Pakistan. Why should people get higher education? Is it to make them better and informed human beings and good citizens? Or is it simply to get a job? Or is it both? Each one of the last three options will lead to a different kind of a university, both in terms of structure, content and style.
John Henry Newman in his ‘Idea of a University’ described that the main purpose of the university is to train and nourish the intellect of a person to pursue the truth. Newman wrote: "Truth is the proper object of the intellect." This is indeed a noble and higher calling. In fact, this is even a religious calling as the pursuit of knowledge in order to achieve the truth is at the heart of all major religions of the world. The production of newer knowledge then follows from such a pursuit.
So do our universities fulfil this basic criterion for being called ‘universities’? A quick google search will inform you that a lot of the times universities are in the news in Pakistan either due to plagiarism allegations against its professors, or for restraining students from holding an event or the other. Thus, rather than producing knowledge, some of our academics are copying it from others with audacity, and rather than pushing students to question and think more we are closing their avenues for dialogue and discussion.
On an even more basic level, how many universities (and their professors) encourage work and thinking outside their classes? The rush in most institutions is to simply finish the course work, get a grade, and qualify for a degree. With such being the reality, can we actually call most places which have a charter, universities?
Connected with the issue of the vision is what type of a university an institution wants to become. There are several models and types of universities. For example, there is the liberal arts college, which focuses on undergraduate education. In such an institution the faculty do continue their personal research but at the centre is teaching and mentoring of students so that they are given a broad-based, interdisciplinary and intensive undergraduate education.
Then there is the research university, which has a strong undergraduate programme, but the main focus is on postgraduate and PhD research. Here they hire top class research faculty that do teach undergraduates, but their focus is mainly on producing cutting edge research. The strong research output of these universities is their main stay.
Furthermore, there are specialised institutions, which might offer a broad undergraduate curriculum but their focus is on research in particular fields. Institutions like MIT and Caltech in the US, Imperial College in London, and HEC in Paris, are examples of such places. At these places a number of departments exist, but the focus is on a few, which then are the highest ranked in their field in the world.
Then there are large public sector universities, which teach almost everything and everyone but which also have certain very highly ranked departments. Since they are public sector, their main focus is on students from their own state, and so admissions might be skewed towards them, but their massive size leads to some excellent highly rated programmes too.
Most institutions in the world, especially in the US, UK and EU, fall under one of the categories above. Almost all are clear about their ‘type’ and therefore their vision is aligned with it. This leads them to focus on what their vision and type demands, ensures clarity and purpose, and streamlines direction.
Now let us look at the universities in Pakistan. Most of our public sector universities are general universities which teach everything. Since the mandate of the public sector universities is to serve the population which wants higher education they have to adopt the earlier mentioned model. However, this does not mean that they cannot focus on some top class research departments.
Then are our science, technology and business related government institutions. Almost all of them by now are transitioning into general universities. Why? Primarily because either a vice chancellor wants a change in direction or they see some lucrative subjects. This change confuses their sense of direction, dilutes the already small pool of available PhD professors, and -- most importantly -- undermines the ability of the specific programmes they were mandated to lead in the first place.
For example, it would be better for an engineering university to focus on producing top engineers and cutting edge research, rather than expanding to offer an MBA degree, no matter how lucrative and attractive that might seem. Offering a different discipline will take away from the existing programme and create the bizarre situation where an engineering university is offering a business programme!
Also read: University governance in Pakistan-II
The state of our private sector universities is even worse. Hardly any have a published vision and direction, and most have no clue why they are offering some of their degrees. Some institutions change degree programmes according to what is the current fad, while others open a plethora of programmes just in the hope that they will get a lot of students. Still others start MPhil and PhD programmes not because they have the requisite structures, professors, ability and need, but because they can.
Once I was told by a colleague of mine that as soon as the number in their department reached the minimum required for an MPhil programme their vice chancellor asked him to start the programme. When asked why an MPhil should be started at the institution the answer was a simple, ‘why not?’ as if it was a given that the minimum required is all one needs. Several institutions on the liberal arts model have also succumbed to offering postgraduate degrees because they bring in research money and prestige, without giving much thought of what they are doing to their claimed focus on undergraduate education.
If higher education is to work in Pakistan, therefore, a real rethink of its vision and focus needs to be made. The government, universities, and their administration and faculty need to sit together and agree upon their vision and model and then follow it. Changing directions, following only market trends, and confusion over their trajectory will only lead to an uninspiring student body and an unmotivated faculty. (To be continued)
The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.