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Analysis: Pakistani Colleges collapse

Pakistani colleges June 2008: The real challenge for the Pakistani college is transforming itself into a dynamic, vibrant and innovative place of high quality learning. This will require great material and faculty resources, autonomy and conversion to a four-year undergraduate programme.
Colleges at the district level have traditionally played a critical role in our education system, particularly in preparing young graduates for professional degrees - mainly in medicine and engineering. The brightest of high school graduates still enrol in natural sciences at these colleges with the hope that they would be admitted to the most competitive medical and engineering universities of the country.

College years are formative for any student. The college is a place of dreams, hope and self-discovery; it is at this stage that young individuals form ideas about who they are and what they would make of their lives.

The young student enters a new, larger social world at college after leaving the disciplined, narrow and familiar environment of a rural or town high school. The college, compared to the high school, provides greater freedom, social space and opportunities to meet people from different areas, regions and social backgrounds.

For most students, entering college is the first time that they experience diversity in their cultural orientations, values, thoughts and ideas. But this diversity is not universal, as more colleges have opened at local levels than was the case when my generation went to college.

Entering college is also a time of great personal transition for a young person from the smaller world of the village, town or city sector to a larger intellectual and social world.

I am not highlighting the importance of college education with reference to Pakistan alone. The foundational role of college education is universally acknowledged, and for that reason attracts greater attention of the state and society.

One of the most tragic aspects of our educational system is that we have continuously neglected college education. Conditions in colleges are worse than any other tier of the system. The internal structures of governance, academic discipline and accountability present a sorry state of affairs. The intrusive presence of religious, ethnic and even mainstream political parties has further diminished the capacity of the college to reform itself. Curricula remain outdated.

The Pakistani college is no longer comparable to the standards, innovation, creativity and high quality of instruction of similar institutions of fast growing developing countries, let alone the modern world.

What are the major issues in college education? Who is really responsible for the collapse of the college? What can be done to lift college education to an acceptable standard?

The design of the college is absolutely outmoded and archaic. Advanced industrial countries concentrate on undergraduate education offered by colleges and universities. Colleges in Canada and the United States offer four-year undergraduate programmes, which are rigorous, diverse in disciplines and of great quality. British and Australian universities have equally outstanding undergraduate programmes. Even most developing countries have greatly reformed their college education by restructuring curricula, introducing diversity in disciplines and raising the quality of instruction.

Compared to what one learns at modern colleges in the West, our colleges hardly offer much except for the outmoded curriculum and the old obsolete ways of delivering it. In the western world, each college awards its own degree; very few of them are affiliated with a major university. They are mostly stand-alone institutions.

In our case, since the colonial times, the college has been delivering a curriculum designed by a Board of Secondary Education at FA and FSc level, and by a university at the BA level or higher degrees.

Why? Colleges don't have any capacity to offer a degree on their own. Over the past ten years, some colleges, mostly in the Punjab, have been granted degree-awarding status. But even in their case, it is the same curriculum that they inherited from former universities.

The real challenge for the Pakistani college is transforming itself into a dynamic, vibrant and innovative place of high quality learning. This will require great material and faculty resources, autonomy and conversion to a four-year undergraduate programme. At least one college in each district must be developed into a four-year undergraduate institution. It is a daunting task but there is no escape if we want to provide quality education to the poorer sections of the society and make them competitive in the job market.

The idea of an autonomous college with a charter of its own looks very radical in the objective conditions of Pakistan today, but nothing short of a revolution in college education will bring about any major change in the society. Reforming college education is an urgent task for giving the poor a level playing field for economic and social mobility. Further delay in college reform will push graduates of government run colleges out of the job market; they are already at the margins because the private job market gives greater value to graduates of private colleges and universities.

While it is pertinent to be critical of the state for its neglect of the colleges, the two internal stakeholders of the college system - faculty and students - cannot escape responsibility for poor standards. No college or university can perform without good governance practices, robust processes and academic accountability of instructors. The system of governance in Pakistani colleges is so weak and poor that it cannot hold accountable teachers that remain absent from classes, engage in businesses or force students to pay for extra tuition. The office of college principal, once high in social and academic standing, has declined in its prestige. Principals have no vision, leadership quality or courage to question absentee faculty or the 'tuition mafia' at colleges. They are just members of the pack, and survive by capitulation to politically connected faculty members at the local level.

The student body at the college level has also lost out to political activists who organise around ethnicity, religion or a political party. Leaders of these student groups function as violent gang members; they are armed and often use violence to intimidate students to remain silent.

The Pakistani college is a grave mess; a nightmare for any reformer. But that should awaken us to the need for bold and courageous initiatives to reform college education instead of turning a blind eye to this bitter reality.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at rasul@lums.edu.pk. This article is part of a series examining the education system of Pakistan - Daily Times
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