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Higher spending, lower standard

Higher Education July 2009: With the way things stand today in society, it might come as a surprise to many that Pakistan leads the region with the highest number of students getting themselves enrolled in fields related to science and technology. As many as 24 per cent of our university-level students opt for the Science faculty, which is three percentage points higher than the South Asian average of 21, and on a par with the global average.
Come to think of it, an even bigger surprise would be that such an impressive enrolment figure fails to translate into any kind of transformation in society where unscientific attitude prevails almost across the board. Besides, the spark of innovation and scientific advancement are as missing from our mix today as they were decades ago.

There used to be a longstanding argument about the lack of enough government spending on higher education that was said to be the main cause behind Pakistan's low positioning in the world of scientific innovation and advancement, but that argument does not hold water anymore. Between 2001 and 2006, there has been a 340 per cent hike in government spending on higher education. Seen in the backdrop of what was going on previously, it is a truly astronomical spike. A parallel rise in student enrolment resulted in a 40 per cent increase in terms of public-sector spending per student at the university level.

These are impressive figures indeed, but have not produced the results that one would have expected. The country remains far behind in key educational indicators among its counterparts in the region. The latest Human Development in South Asia Report released recently by the Islamabad-based Mahbubul Haq Development Centre points out that Pakistan's university enrolment rate, though impressive when seen in isolation, is quite dismal in the regional context.

It can be argued that the money injected into the system over the last few years will take time to turn things around and that one would be better off being patient and optimistic instead of being jittery and critical, but certain facts pointed out in the report suggest otherwise.

"In Pakistan, two-third of the higher education budget is spent on salaries," it says while stressing the obvious: "Merely increasing the financial Medical graduates at their convocation

allocations is not enough unless the money is utilised efficiently. A huge part of the budget is spent on salaries, in particular the salaries of non-teaching staff, leaving little for capital expenditure that are vital for quality improvement."

Though the report does not take into account spending on infrastructure, it is common observation that in the last decade or so, universities in Pakistan have tended to spend lavishly on erecting wonderful structures and on refurnishing administrative offices. By the time they are done with it, they are left with precious little to spend on things that may turn things around in terms of imparting quality education.

Take, for instance, the case of the Mass Communication department at one of the leading public-sector universities of the country. A couple of years ago, it spent millions on putting up a new building which is a far cry from the primitive structure which was housing it for several decades. It is pleasing to the eyes, no doubt, but the problem is that the department had no funds left to buy equipment that is essential for effective teaching of the course material to its students.

Before moving into the new building, the department had a dated camera that was guided by its own whim and fancy rather than human command. It also had one multimedia projector that was often loaned out to other departments for their seminars and symposiums. It had no wire service connection worth its name. And the internet connection, at best, was occasionally functional. In the new setup, which has since been upgraded to the level of an institute, there has been no change of status in terms of equipment. Accordingly, there has been no change in the quality of education either.

By spending less than half-a-million, one could have taken care of all the issues on the equipment side, but it was considered preferable by the decision-makers to spend many, many times more on the physical structure. In official files, these millions have been spent on education, but in effect, all this has been spent on everything except education. And, lest it may be mistaken, this is not a one-off case of botched priorities; there are scores of similar examples spread in universities across the land. Some of them, in fact, might be much more horrible.

With this kind of mindset at work, official data regarding money spent on education is hardly a relevant marker either for assessing improvement in the educational sector or for a shift of priorities on the part of policy-makers. And this explains at least one major reason why there has been no practical change in the value of our universities' output.

The other half is brought forth by the quality — or its absence — of teaching methodology and practices. Before moving into the issue itself, let us first have a look at what it means in practical terms. As noted by the Human Development Report, a survey based on interviews with Pakistani employers, parents, students and graduates looking for employment showed that the "quality of graduates produced was less than adequate and that graduates exhibited poor communication skills, poor reading habits, narrow vision and a limited world view."

Anybody who has anything to do with the job market would readily agree with the findings of the survey. Conducting interviews of public-sector university graduates has the potential to cause bursts of laughter and fits of anger because a sizeable majority of them happen to be not just ignorant about their own fields of study, but also naοve in their approach towards life at large. The ground reality is not merely bad; it is pathetic.

There being two parties to the conflict — students and teachers — there are two basic dimensions of the problem. The first party, the students, coming to the university does not bring enough momentum of its own because education imparted at primary, secondary and higher secondary levels is a serious non-starter. Being deficient in their core academic value, schools and colleges have no way — and no intention — of working on aspects like character-building, work ethics, the centrality of knowledge in human progress, the significance of keeping pace with the world and so on. By the time this lot lands in the hands of the second party, the university teachers, the die is already cast in terms of temperament, mindset, attitude and approach.

It is not of any help at all that the university atmosphere has its own plethora of problems: curriculum, faculty, research are all parts of the problem; not of the solution. This is so because environment at public-sector universities in Pakistan — and, indeed, across South Asia — has two major hallmarks: internal inefficiency

and lack of accountability.

Away from the administrative side which has political interference thrown in for good measure, the low availability in society of qualified, competent and trained teachers is a major hurdle in the whole process. Teaching has never been a profession of choice in Pakistan. In the absence of much option in this regard, universities are forced to hire inexperienced, lower qualified staff to keep the system moving.

Ironically, some of these teachers happen to be the very people who had simply gone through the motion of studying in schools, colleges and universities and were then found to be good for nothing by the job market which, as cited above, questioned the quality of graduates and blamed them for exhibiting poor communication skills, poor reading habits, narrow vision and a limited world view. A teacher with such unenviable attributes can hardly be expected to produce scientists of tomorrow. And this is why even an increased enrolment on par with the global average is nothing much to celebrate. -By Humair Ishtiaq (Dawn)


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