Reforming public sector universities

November 17, 2019

Seventy percent of the employees in any university should be teachers and 30 percent non-teaching staff

A wry smile appeared on Dr Sherwani’s face when I asked him how Pakistan’s higher education sector could be fixed. In his familiar modest manner, he took a pause and alluded to my writings, many of which dealt with the issue of higher education and said, “You know that much better than I do.” Knowing his profound thoughts about various socio-cultural issues and the wide range of his scholarship, I kept pestering him to share his thoughts on this matter of immense significance.

A hardcore academic whose capability is matched only by a few in our academic milieu, Dr Sherwani has been to some of the top universities of the world. Being a keen observer, I was sure he had something quite valuable to share. He is parsimonious with words, but has the knack of saying a lot without going into unnecessary locution. Thus, he enumerated three things to start with, which according to him, are essential to put public sector universities on the right track.

According to his vision, the first and foremost thing is to put university libraries in order, since they are the jugular vein for institutions of higher learning.

The libraries need to be well-stocked and internationally connected. The most recent reading material on every discipline and sub-discipline must be made available to the teachers as well as the taught. Currently, no more than three or four books are recommended to the students by their teachers. (That too happens at the best of the public sector universities). A similar number of books is mentioned in the reading list furnished at the end of the course outline. Not a single library in Pakistan meets the internationally-acclaimed standards.

Consequently, the teaching, both at undergraduate and graduate levels, does not cultivate in our youth the capacity to gain a competitive edge. Their knowledge base is shallow and the skill set far from adequate. The facts become stark when they approach the job market.

Poor teaching and inadequacy in training at the university level are the prime causes of institutional decadence that we witness around us. A reform process yields results only if it is carried out by setting the internal mechanisms right.

In simple terms, the reform process should start from within. In its stead, human resources from abroad are often preferred as the ultimate panacea for all our problems. Thus, the connection between classroom and library has to be forged and stressed.

Funds need to be set aside for subscription to important journals. Libraries ought to have enough carrells where academics/scholars and post graduate students can have time to themselves, doing their research and academic reading. Serious academics are always in the need of a bubble, within which they are not fazed and flustered by any distraction. The ‘reserved’ space(s) in the library can be that necessary bubble.

The second measure Dr Sherwani insisted on was the enrollment of international students in our universities in disciplines in which they excel, like Islamic studies, Urdu, history, geography and geology, medicine and engineering.

I concur with Dr Sherwani’s prescription. We tried this at the GCU, Lahore in 2016-17 and the response was very encouraging. Forty eight students from various countries were enrolled ab initio. Unfortunately, with the connivance of a controversial figure in GC University’s administration, the initiative was sabotaged.

Having no academic background or understanding vital for running an educational institution, this official nevertheless had the power to bulldoze every measure conceived or carried out for the good of the institution. He also undermined the process of bringing transparency to classroom activities and in the conduct of the examination through installing online portals. That exactly is the reason GC University is worse off than before. The slide continues.

Reverting to the point, only six out of the 48 students managed to join GC University. Two of them came to the Department of History and the culture of the department changed instantaneously. Those students asked probing questions, mostly about the perimeters within which an issue was being discussed and our academics mostly took these for granted.

Such questions compelled the teachers to think critically about the very basis the academic issue had rested on. The relationship of ideology with the geography of Pakistan was one such issue, for instance. Teachers had to devote more time to preparing their lectures before going to the classes. Conversing with them in English put quite an exacting demand on the teachers, which resulted in the improvement of academic standards.

A few students were enrolled in other departments and after seeing their standard wanting in academic rigour, they reported it to the vice chancellor. If he, too, seemed to be prevaricating, they contacted their embassies and the Higher Education Commission was informed about the slackness. Thus, pressure was continuously on teachers to improve their performance.

Lastly, agreeing with my proposition of universities concentrating squarely on undergraduate programmes, making them academically robust, skill-oriented and in sync with internationally acclaimed standard, Dr Sherwani said that even if universities wanted to initiate post-graduate courses, the faculty must link itself first with the international market. It should secure mega-projects from international funding agencies (like the United Nations and various agencies working in its fold) and sponsor their research and see to it that a handful of PhD students are involved in those projects.

The research should be focused on Pakistan, particularly when it comes to social sciences and humanities. On colonialism, we don’t have enough archival data, therefore, all that is being produced is half-cooked and ultimately inconsequential. In the current state, the salaries of the teaching faculty come from the government’s kitty irrespective of whether they do research or not. If they do, in most cases its quality is pathetic.

To me, that was asking a bit too much from Pakistani academics employed in the public sector universities. However, Dr Sherwani didn’t budge and insisted that post-graduate teaching and research should be the prerogative of only such academics who can bring in funding from abroad. Having said that, undergraduate teaching holds the key in the creation of the critical mass. Therefore, optimum attention needs to be riveted on 4-year degree programmes, instead of squandering away the attention and efforts on producing sub-standard M Phils and PhDs.

We concluded our conversation on an important note: the rationalisation of administrative staff vis a vis faculty. Seventy percent of the employees in any university should be teachers and 30 percent non-teaching staff. In most public sector universities toda, the ratio tilts in favour of the non-teaching staff, which is ludicrous. Also, as I highlighted in the example of GCU, the administrative staff often has powers that need to be reallocated to academic faculty. The role of administrative staff needs to be supportive, the command should rest with the faculty.

Pakistan's higher education and issue of reforming public sector universities