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Reforming Our Universities


There is a severe and long-standing crisis in higher education. But, until the present military government took the initiative, there was no rehabilitation plan. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, appointed as chairman of the Higher Education Commission, was the wonder-man charged by General Musharraf with turning the situation around. He was quick to make a powerful pitch for vast increases in funding.

 

Foreign donors, worried about the implications of Pakistan‘s sinking educational system, obliged. The higher education budget zoomed by twelve times (1,200 per cent) over three years, a world record. A number of new and innovative utilization schemes were announced.

 

Some solid achievements did emerge. Internet connectivity in universities has been substantially expanded; distance education is being seriously pursued through the newly established Virtual University; a digital library is in operation; some foreign faculty has been hired; students are being sent abroad for PhD training (albeit largely to second rate institutions); some links with foreign institutions now exist; and money for scientific equipment is no longer a problem. No previous Pakistani government can boast of comparable accomplishments, and the HEC chairman deserves congratulations.

 

But the HEC is also creating very dangerous, possibly lethal, systemic changes. In this article I will look at the problems in our higher education system and why the HEC reforms are set to make a bad situation worse rather than better. In a subsequent article, I will suggest some modest steps that may offer a way forward.

 

Pakistan has almost a hundred universities now. Not one of them is world class. Truth be told, not even one of them is a real university, if by a university one means a community of scholars engaged in free inquiry and the creation of knowledge.

 

Take for example the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, reputed to be Pakistan‘s best. Academic activities common in good universities around the world are noticeably absent.

 

Seminars and colloquia, where faculty present for peer review the results of their on-going research, are few and far between. Public lectures, debates, or discussions of contemporary scientific, cultural, or political issues are almost non-existent.

 

The teaching at QAU is no better. Rote learning is common, students are not encouraged to ask questions in class, and courses are rarely completed by the end of the semester. This university has three mosques but no bookstore. It is becoming more like a madressah in other ways too.

 

It was not always this way. The global intellectual ferment of the late 1960′s and 70′s had a stimulating impact on Pakistani campuses. Intellectual, scientific, cultural and literary activity flourished.

 

Young Pakistani scholars gave up potential careers in the West to come to Pakistani universities. But in November of 1981, just days after three QAU teachers had been caught with anti-martial law and pro-democracy pamphlets, General Ziaul Haq thundered on television that he would “purge the country’s universities of the cancer of politics”. He succeeded.

 

A quarter century later, the faculty are more concerned with money and promotions than research, teaching, or bringing their knowledge to bear on the myriad issues facing our society. Among the students there are many burqas and beards, but minuscule intellectual or creative activity.

 

All student unions are gone, and ideological disputes have evaporated into the thin air. Instead of left vs right politics there is simple tribalism. Now Punjabi students gang together against Pakhtoon students, Muhajirs versus Sindhis, Shias versus Sunnis, etc.

 

Some campuses are run by gangs of hoodlums and harbour known criminals, while others have Rangers with machine guns on continuous patrol. On occasion, student wolf packs attack each other with sticks, stones, pistols, and automatic weapons. There are many campus murders.

 

Most students have not learned how to think; they cannot speak or write any language well, rarely read newspapers, and cannot formulate a coherent argument or manage any significant creative expression.

 

Dumbed down, this generation of Pakistanis is intellectually handicapped. Like overgrown children, students of my university now kill time by making colourful birthday posters for friends, do “istikhara” (fortune telling), and wander aimlessly in Islamabad‘s bazaars.

 

Understanding the scale of the failure is important. Compare Pakistan‘s premier university with those in its neighbours’ capitals. First to the east: Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the Indian Institute of Technology, in Delhi.

 

Their facilities are simple and functional, nothing like the air-conditioned and carpeted offices of most professors at QAU. And, more important, every notice board is crammed with notices for seminars and colloquia, visitors from the very best foreign universities lecture there, research laboratories hum with activity, and pride and satisfaction are written all around. Conflict on campuses does exist – communist and socialist students battle with Hindutva students over the Gujrat carnage, Iraq, Kashmir, and the BJP doctoring of history.

 

Angry words are exchanged and polemics are issued against the other, but no heads are bashed. While lecturing at these institutions during a recent visit, I was impressed by the fearlessness and the informed, critical intelligence of the students who questioned and challenged me. I cannot imagine an Indian professor having a similar reception in Pakistan.

 

Now to the west: Teheran’s Sharif University of Technology, and the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, are impressive institutions filled with professional activity, workshops, and seminars.

 

Even as they maintain good academic standards, Iranian university students are heavily political and today are spearheading the movement for freedom and democracy. Iranian students make it to the best US graduate schools.

 

Although it is an Islamic republic, bookshops are more common than mosques in Tehran. Translations into Farsi appear in just weeks or months after a book is published in the western world.

 

Driven by the unfavourable comparison with neighbours, the need for university reform finally became an issue. The first big idea was that Pakistan needed more universities.

 

So today all it takes is a piece of paper from the HEC and some paint. Some colleges have literally had their signboards taken down for repainting, and been put back up changed into “universities” the next day.

 

By such sleight of hand the current tally of public universities, according to the HEC website, is now officially 47, up from the 23 officially listed in 1996. In addition, there are eight degree awarding public sector institutes.

 

Unfortunately, this is merely a numbers game. All new public sector universities lack infrastructure, libraries, laboratories, adequate faculty, or even a pool of students academically prepared to study at the university level.

 

The HEC’s “generosity” extends even into largely illiterate tribal areas. There are so-called universities now in Malakand, Bannu, Kohat, Khuzdar, Gujrat, Haripur, and in many other places where it is difficult to detect the slightest potential for successfully establishing modern universities.

 

Another poorly thought-out, and dangerous, HEC scheme involves giving massive cash awards to university teachers for publishing research papers – Rs 60,000 per paper published in a foreign journal.

 

Although these stimulants are said to have increased the number of papers published in international journals by a whopping 44 per cent, there is little evidence that this increase in volume is the result of an increase in genuine research activity.

 

The fact is only a slim minority of Pakistani academics possesses the ethics, motivation, and capability needed for genuine scientific discovery and research. For the majority, the HEC incentives are a powerful reason to discover the art of publishing in research journals without doing research, to find loopholes, and to learn how to cover up one’s tracks.

 

Established practices of plagiarizing papers, multiple publications of slightly different versions of the same paper in different research journals, fabricating scientific data, and seeking out third-rate foreign journals with only token referees are now even more common. The HEC has broadcast the message: corruption pays!

 

The casual disregard for quality is most obvious in the HEC’s massive PhD production programme. This involves enrolling 1,000 students in Pakistani universities every year for PhD degrees.

 

Thereby Pakistan‘s “PhD deficit” (it produces less than 50 PhDs per annum at present) will supposedly be solved and it will soon be at par with India. In consequence, an army of largely incapable and ignorant students, armed with hefty HEC fellowships, has sallied forth to write PhD theses.

 

Although the HEC claims that it has checked the students through a “GRE type test” (the American graduate school admission test), a glance at the question papers reveals it to be only a shoddy literacy and numeric test.

 

In my department, advertised as the best physics department in the country, the average PhD student now has trouble with high-school level physics and even with reading English.

 

Nevertheless there are as many as 18 PhD students registered with one supervisor! In the QAU biology department, that number rises to 37 for one supervisor. HEC incentives have helped dilute PhD qualifying exams to the point where it is difficult for any student not to pass. The implications of this mass-production of PhDs are dire. Very soon hundreds and, in time, thousands of worthless PhDs will be cranked out. They will train even less competent students.

 

Eventually they will become heads of departments and institutions. When appointed gatekeepers, they will regard more competent individuals as threats to be kept locked out. The degenerative spiral, long evident in any number of Pakistani institutions, will worsen rapidly, and become infinitely more difficult to break.

 

For three decades Pakistani education planners toyed with grand plans to build MITs and Harvards in the country. Nothing materialized. But three years ago the first serious effort to deal with Pakistan‘s chronically ill universities was finally initiated. Unfortunately, this effort by the Higher Education Commission has now become mired in an intense, growing controversy.

 

The immediate cause centres on the award of fake degrees and the flourishing of substandard higher education institutions, as well as on the HEC’s head, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, having personally punished the whistle-blower who brought this important issue to his (and the public’s) notice. While unpleasant, this controversy is important because it addresses the deeper underlying question of the quality and credibility – rather than just the quantity – of higher education.

 

In the previous article, I explained how badly the existing university system has been broken and how the current university reform strategy is compounding the problem by concentrating on glitzy things like internet access, digital libraries, virtual learning, etc., while ignoring basic problems.

 

Allowing these “reforms” to continue will destroy what little there is today. On the other hand, it will be a tragedy for Pakistan if the current HEC attempts collapse in a heap of dust. So, how to proceed if we are serious in trying to improve our universities?

 

The policy don’ts are clear. Some have already been discussed earlier: stop the creation of worthless new universities; stop funding and rewarding research that really isn’t research; stop dishing out useless PhDs; stop playing the numbers game; and stop feeding academic corruption.

 

The do’s are far more than can be discussed here. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two mutually distinct sets. One set must deal with raising the level of general competence of teachers and students by ensuring that they actually have an understanding of the subject they teach or study, and with increasing the amount of research in specific disciplines. Universities everywhere prepare engineers, doctors, economists, business managers, and other professionals needed to fulfil the stringent demands of a modern society. Pakistani universities obviously need to do the same.

 

The second set relates to the broader function of universities – to create thinking minds, pursue research in subjects that are important but are not of immediate economic utility, to create and organize discourses on social and political issues, and to raise the cultural and aesthetic level of society. Whereas the Soviet and Chinese models concentrated exclusively on the first set of goals, western universities – or at least the good ones among them – successfully synthesized both sets and were far superior.

 

It is a mistake to believe that inadequate financial resources have prevented Pakistani universities from achieving the goals of the first set. In fact, the real need is for deep administrative and organizational reforms, together with the strong political will needed to handle the counter-reaction they would inevitably provoke.

 

First, there must be university entrance examinations at the national level to separate individuals who can benefit from higher education from those who cannot. No such system exists in Pakistan. Only local board examinations – where rote memorization and massive cheating are rampant – are used to select students.

 

But, on our borders, both Iran and India have centralized university admissions systems that work very well. Although corruption in India is perhaps as pervasive as in Pakistan, admissions to the IITs have nevertheless retained their integrity and intensely competitive nature over several decades. Honest examinations are presumably also possible in Pakistan, provided extreme care is taken.

 

Having such university entrance examinations would be important for another reason as well – they would set the goal posts for colleges and high schools all over Pakistan. In the US, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, centrally administered by Princeton, are extremely useful for deciding student aptitude for university education. The “A” level examinations in Britain have similar importance.

 

At the PhD level, if the HEC is at all serious about standards, it should make it mandatory for every Pakistani university to require that a PhD candidate achieve a certain minimum in an international examination such as the GRE. These exams are used by US universities for admission into PhD programmes.

 

Given the state of student and teacher knowledge, and the quantity and quality of research in Pakistani universities, selection through GRE subject tests would have the welcome consequence of cutting down the number enrolled in HEC indigenous PhD programmes from 1,000 per year to a few dozen. The present safeguard of having “foreign experts” evaluate theses is insufficient for a variety of reasons, including the manipulations commonly made in the process of referee selection.

 

Second, we need to test those who would be university teachers. The system has remained broken for so long that written entrance tests for junior faculty, standardized at a central facility, are essential. Without them, universities will continue to hire teachers who freely convey their confusion and ignorance to students. Most teachers today never consult a textbook, choosing to dictate from notes they saved from the time when they were students in the same department. No teacher has ever been fired for demonstrating incompetence in his/her subject.

 

Third, the recruitment of non-permanent foreign faculty, whether of Pakistani origin or otherwise, is essential. Although this country is home to 150 million people, there are perhaps fewer than 20 computer scientists of sufficient calibre who could possibly get tenure-track positions at some B-grade US university. In physics, even if one roped in every competent physicist in the country, it would not be possible to staff even one single good department of physics. As for mathematics: it is impossible to find even five real mathematicians in Pakistan. The social sciences are no better.

 

In this grim situation, it is fortunate that the Higher Education Commission has initiated a programme for hiring foreign faculty with attractive salaries. But the success of this programme is uncertain. Jealousy at salary differentials, and a fear that local incompetence will be exposed, have led local teachers and university administrations to block the hiring of faculty from abroad.

 

There is another problem: Pakistan‘s image as a violent country deters most foreigners from wanting to come and live in Pakistan for any considerable period of time. Therefore, westerners are almost totally absent from the list of those who have applied under the foreign faculty hiring programme. Apart from Pakistani expatriates in the Middle East, the bulk of applicants are Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union countries.

 

One wishes it could be otherwise. It would be a major breakthrough if Indian and Iranian teachers could be brought to Pakistan. Indians, in particular, would find it much easier to adapt to local ways and customs than others and also have smaller salary expectations. The huge pool of strong Indian candidates could be used to Pakistan‘s advantage – it could pick the best teachers and researchers, and those most likely to make a positive impact on the system. In the present mood of rapprochement, it is hard to think of a more meaningful confidence building measure.

 

Fourth, we need better, more transparent, and accountable ways to recruit vice-chancellors and senior administrators. What we have now is a patronage system that appoints unqualified and unsuitable bureaucrats or generals as vice-chancellors, and that staffs universities with corrupt and incompetent administrators.

 

While a tenure-track system for faculty is currently under discussion and may allow for breaking with the system of life-long jobs independent of performance, there is no corresponding system being contemplated for the top leadership. But without good leadership, and people who can set an example, no institution can be reformed.

 

Finally, it is crucial to bring back on to the campuses meaningful discussions on social, cultural and political issues. To create the culture of civilized debate, student unions must be restored, with elections for student representatives. They will be the next generation of political leaders.

 

Such a step will not be free from problems – religious vigilantes rule many Pakistani campuses although all unions are banned. Extremists would surely try to take advantage of the new opportunities offered once the ban is lifted. Political parties have also been less than responsible.

 

But the reinstatement of unions – subject to their elected leaders making a pledge to abjure violence and the disruption of academic activity – is the only way forward towards creating a university culture on campus. Ultimately, reasonable voices, too, will become heard.

 

To condemn Pakistani students as fundamentally incapable of responsible behaviour amounts to a condemnation of the Pakistani nation itself. If students in our neighbouring countries can successfully study, as well as unionize and engage in larger issues, then surely Pakistan‘s can do so as well.

 

The task of university reform has not yet seriously begun. Nor can it do so until issues of the purpose and philosophy of higher education and of the goal of the reforms are squarely confronted. It is time to decide whether we are serious about education being something more than merely giving out certificates. Do we want to build institutions for creating knowledge and helping students to be informed, critical, active citizens? Or not. The author is professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

 

 

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