The possibility of reforming a university

February 2, 2020

If the person at the helm has the courage and intent to change things for the better, reforms are a possibility

When I bade farewell to Government College University, Lahore slightly larger than a year ago, I was convinced that public sector universities in Pakistan are beyond any possibility of reform or redemption. The pursuit of individual interests seemed rampant while I thought that in order to build any institutions, individual interests must be consigned to a back burner.

Cronyism held precedence over merit. A reign of terror pervaded every corner of the institutions. Administrative officers seemed to derive pleasure from humiliating academics. At GC University, Lahore, the ambience had become so inimical to academic activity that very few academics of international reputation were able to sustain themselves. Pervez Tahir, Anjum Saleemi, Anjum Naseem and Shuja ul Haq were either forced to leave or made to realise that they were not welcome there.

It was really disconcerting to see the way Prof Jamal Malik from the University of Erfurt, Germany was maltreated. It was proving difficult to get an appointment from the then vice chancellor to grant him an audience.

Almost the same can be said about the Punjab university; some of its departments are completely overtaken by xenophobia. Anybody equipped with a degree or training from a good foreign university is shooed away with insolence. The conclusions are applicable to a majority of public sector universities. Having mentioned most of the dark side of these (public sector) institutions, let’s turn to the ray of hope that has recently manifested in GC University, Lahore.

Recent developments have revived hope and optimism. The endeavour to establish the primacy of academics epitomizes a paradigm shift, which is quite promising, about which I will say a bit more later in this write-up. It is hoped that the administrative positions will be filled through a selection board. Until now, only academics had faced selection boards whereas positions of registrar, controller of examinations and treasurer were doled out to the cronies of the one in the saddle.

In order to ensure transparency and to attract quality human resource, such appointments ought to be made through a selection board. Having said that, the shuffle during the week gone by augurs well. The registrar, Dr Shaukat Ali, is well-meaning, polite and not averse to academics. He holds a PhD in education, which has cultivated in him the necessary insight that will benefit the institution. One hopes that he will constitute his team with extra care so that efficiency can be ensured.

GC University’s set up is admin-heavy for this day and age. That component should be smaller in terms of numerical strength but proactive and efficient in terms of performance. The boys and girls, with the requisite gift of the gab, equipped with IT skills and well conversant with the modern means of public administration must be recruited to make it look like an institution of the current century.

Another laudable act on the part of Prof Asghar Zaidi, the new vice chancellor, is that he has entrusted the task of managing examinations to Mr Shahzad Ahmad, which indeed, too, is a good omen. Known for his social skills, courtesy and personable demeanor, Shahzad Ahmad’s appointment as controller will go a long way to mollify teaching staff’s grievance emanating from the unbecoming conduct of his predecessor. Faculty is jubilant over that change. Furthermore, due care is being extended to the library, which had been neglected previously. GC University Lahore is indeed lucky to have Muhammad Naeem as its chief librarian. He is modest, conscientious and very efficient. Many researchers and academics come to the GCU library just because of him. In the current dispensation, he seems to have acquired prominence, which is quite heartening.

One common feature among these three persons is their modesty and respect they show for teachers. The only weak link is the media projection of the University. For that GCU needs to hire someone who is properly qualified and has a clean reputation. Such a person must have at least an M Phil degree in media studies.

I alluded to the paradigm shift that Prof Zaidi has brought about, which has two aspects. Ever since Government College Lahore was elevated to the University status, it is for the first time that faculty members are being consulted in putting together a policy framework. Trust exhibited and reposed in the deans and heads of the departments will surely invest in them responsibility and a sense of ownership for the institution.

Previously some departments and a few people had been enjoying autonomy, which some of them used to pursue their personal agenda. Now signs are that they are being streamlined. The other aspect is the devolution of responsibility to younger academics. Obviously, they can be the instrument for cultivating an innovative approach and a fresh vision.

Dr Hussain Ahmad Khan (a remarkable cultural historian) is one big example who has a thorough yet profound understanding of the exigencies of higher education. Being a serious academic and by nature a workaholic, he can be a big source for Prof Zaidi to enact reforms which he has undertaken to enforce.

Dr Sajjad Ahmad Khan is another young academic, who is erudite, serious and a refined person. GCU has a great wealth of talent in such youngsters. They include Atif Shahbaz, Salma Hassan, Dr Babar Asi, Dr Musafa Butt, Dr Afzal Khan, Shahram, Dr Ahtasham Ali, and Aqueel Waghah, who have the potential to work wonders for the institution.

Two people that I want to mention are Dr Zahra Shah and Mahboob Ahmad. Both are exceptional in their commitment for scholarship and imparting knowledge. Mahboob is finishing his PhD from the US and undoubtedly, he is endowed with a lot of potential to be an asset for GCU.

All these youngsters should be encouraged to concentrate on honing their academic prowess and skills. The spurious research that has been churned out in abundance, which does not have any social or financial relevance, must be discouraged and the culture of book writing should be promoted.

GCU must have its own discourse that can only be acquired through academic excellence, which is a formidable task. Let’s hope that under the able leadership of Prof Zaidi, that premier institution of yore manages to reclaim its rightful status. One thing, however, is certain if the person at the helm has the courage and intent to change things for the better, reforms are always a possibility.

Vice chancellor of GCU Prof Asghar Zaidi, a ray of hope for the institutions reforms