The larger issue that has been identified in the attack on the vice chancellor is that of online classes
A recent media campaign against the current vice chancellor of GC University Lahore has highlighted a couple of important issues that I wish to address in this column.
For starters, having myself been a part of university administration at GCU in the past, I am repeatedly struck by the problems that are caused by a lack of vision in running higher education institutions. This is reflected in state education policy, the running of the HEC, the process for appointing people who head universities and their various administrative functions, and in the general apathy of faculty members to their own growth.
These are issues that I have written on in these pages in the past. The bone I had to pick with the previous GCU administration was the then vice chancellor’s lack of vision and the absence of a willingness to make structural changes. The current vice chancellor, however, I am pleased to say, means business. This has upset all those who have been wading comfortably in the stagnant waters of GCU, particularly those behind the smear campaign to malign him and his team.
Dr Zaidi is the first VC of this university who is trying to make a core team of academics committed to their work, and having idealism which I think is the core value for an academic. He does not rely entirely on non-academic staff while making policy decisions as has been the practice in the recent past. None of his predecessors felt the need to forge a cordial relationship with the faculty based on mutual respect. The administration, under the various institutional heads, acted like the colonizers of old, in that all ranks of administrative staff were known to look down on faculty members and treat them rudely and with disrespect.
I must also reiterate that in my opinion, the heart and soul of any university’s academic community is the faculty. In administration-heavy universities the faculty is sidelined, leading to abysmal standards of education we see in many public sector institutions.
Now, however, in GCU, the pyramid seems to have been inverted. For the first time since 2002, academics with foreign degrees and a serious bent of mind have come to the forefront. This has annoyed those remnants of the past administrations who had been catapulted to senior positions just because of their social relationship or a nuisance value, and managed to remain in those positions or get promoted further whenever the boss changed.
The current vice chancellor is also endowed with the courage to take tough decisions and has shown it since taking charge some six months ago. He has appointed to the offices of registrar and controller of examinations, two individuals who show respect and courtesy to faculty members. The changes he has made have been in accordance with the statutory powers vested in the office of vice chancellor.
This has upset a few apple carts. Some remnants of past administrations are still in important positions, but one hopes that given his vision and willingness to bring about change the VC will eventually appoint well-trained academics to all such positions.
The VC is not a public representative answerable to all and sundry. He has simply taken on a mafia that had laid siege around GCU ever since it became a University in 2002. That, in fact, is why he is in the news so frequently - perhaps a weakness on the part of the public relations office. It is indeed a gargantuan task to render the mafia and its power centres ineffective, a reflection of the larger macrocosm of Pakistani society in general. Yet, several members of the mafia have been recently displaced.
The large issue identified in the attack on the VC is the matter of online classes. It has been alleged in some newspapers, through unnamed sources, that the GCU has been inadequately prepared for the transition to online teaching, and that the system has “failed”. Meanwhile, some segments of society have been demanding a blanket ban on online classes. I intend to deal with both these questions.
For starters, nobody could have predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic would cause such a widespread systemic failure. With educational institutions closed, the question that arose was: how do we get the education system to continue despite the change in ground realities? I am surprised that most of those asking for a blanket ban on online education are themselves educated rights campaigners.
The general response of the public to the pandemic has been marked by ignorance and obstinacy. I would have assumed that the general attitude displayed by those in the highest offices would be an urgent call to further educate people, even opening up for debate the existing educational syllabi which discourage critical thinking. By asking instead for a blanket ban on online education, I believe they have done a disservice to those who still want to engage with the academic community.
I understand that in many cases issues of access to means of communication, internet, computers, etc need to be addressed. However, the answer cannot be a blanket boycott of online teaching. I think a majority of students and teachers are willing to make the most of the limited resources available in order to continue their learning, and this needs to be allowed. Of course, all possible exceptions should be made to accommodate anyone who does not have equal access to resources, but the answer is not to exclude everyone else from the system.
Institutions, particularly private schools and universities are dependent on fees to pay salaries to their workforce, including faculty members. Online teaching allows them to justify their fees. Of course, this does not mandate them to raise their fees as LUMS recently did.
This brings me back to the GCU and the supposed “failure” of its online teaching. When the pandemic struck, unlike several other institutions of similar repute and size, the GCU did not have an online teaching facility in place. Therefore, it had to pool its resources in a hurry and devise a strategy to meet the challenge, which was an uphill task because the human resources available to the institutions were not adequate to engage in online teaching.
Dr Hussain Ahmed Khan and Emad Opal were entrusted with the task of revitalising whatever little IT resources the GCU had and bring those to the level where those can be of practical use. Frantic efforts were put in; the team responsible for making distant learning possible worked day and night and achieved the goal in a few weeks – a great accomplishment in view of the hierarchical nature of administration at the university.
In 2016, a team of academics working under my lead and including Dr Hussain Ahmed Khan and Mohsin Khan of the History Department in particular, had proposed online portals for maintaining records of student attendance, classes, assignments and examinations in line with international best practices and consistent with practices at various local universities. The system was meant to discourage unfair practices like duty leaves for students, teachers marking attendance without accountability, admissions being granted without due procedure and to stop various administrative offices from making changes to attendance records and results without the teachers finding out.
It was hoped that in most cases, complaints about a teacher wasting time in class or not being prepared or equipped to teach a particular course could be addressed through an online documentation process. The ultimate aim was to raise the waning academic standards and the profile of the university. Imagine wanting to attract international students without even an online portal.
Unfortunately, the then registrar, controller, systems analyst and computer science head, joined forces to ensure that these online portals were never put in place despite the initial enthusiasm of the then VC. A number of meetings were held, and every time someone came up with a ridiculous objection. Eventually friends in the administration told me that the portals were not going to be allowed to function and my team gave up.
I just wonder if the GCU might not have been better prepared for the inevitable shift to online teaching had the online system been allowed to start all those years ago. Of course, there are problems in initiating a system for over 9,000 students; of course, the faculty is not entirely ready for online teaching, but with the VC’s bold decision to go ahead these problems will be addressed.