Pakistan universities major issues

Tidal wave of cash hit Pakistan's universities
Lahore, Jan 25: Dark clouds are gathering over Pakistan's universities, portending a conflict that is likely to be long, bitter and uncertain in outcome. On one side are those who say that PhD degree holders must have, at the very minimum, undergraduate-level knowledge in the relevant discipline.

On the other side are PhD aspirants, together with their supervisors, who demand unearned degrees. They hold that passing examinations and taking courses is unnecessary and an affront to their dignity. The first volleys have already been fired. Earlier this month about 100 students, registered for the PhD degree at Quaid-i-Azam University, angrily mobbed the executive director of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) as he entered the campus. Their demand: cancel the current requirements of passing the international Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) as well as taking and passing graduate level courses. They say that producing research papers entitles them to receive the highest degree in their chosen discipline.

To his credit, the HEC officer stood his ground. He pleaded that removing essential graduation requirements would make their degrees meaningless, that they really did need to know subject basics before doing research etc. But these obvious and sensible arguments cut no ice with those who believe that PhD degrees are a birthright. Rhythmic cries of "hum nahin mantay zulm kay zabtay" (we will not tolerate tyranny!) reverberated across the campus. This leads one to wonder: for how long can the HEC withstand such pressures? What if the floodgates give way?

A tidal wave of cash hit Pakistan's universities between 2002-2008. The 10 to 12 times budgetary increase set a new world record while the accompanying hype touched the skies. Advised by the HEC's newly appointed chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, Gen Pervez Musharraf grandly declared that the annual production of PhD degree holders would be boosted from 150 per year to 1,500 per year. Incentive schemes encouraged teachers - often of doubtful academic merit themselves - to take on PhD students by the score. Academic quality, already low, nose-dived.

In 2006, pressed by persistent critics to include at least some minimal quality checks, the authorities finally made the right decision. They declared that a PhD candidate must 'pass' the international GRE undergraduate-level subject test administered by the Education Testing Service, Princeton. But the meaning of 'pass' was a hot potato that was not touched upon for another two years. Finally, in 2008, passing was declared as achievement of 40 percentile or better in the subject test.

Even this ludicrously low pass mark drew howls of protest. PhD students saw their degrees endangered while their supervisors saw their incomes threatened: every single registered PhD student was a cash cow worth Rs5,000 per month. The money went into the teacher's pocket. Banded together by common interests, teachers and students lobbied to get the pass mark reduced still further. Others demanded that if testing was to be done at all, allow it to be done locally. Proponents of international testing were dubbed as 'foreign agents' and passionate arguments of national ghairat (honour) being at stake were thrown around.

But international tests of subject competence are simply indispensable. First, science is a global enterprise and rules for assessing competence in a particular discipline are universal. Local evaluations and testing mechanisms cannot compete in validity and quality. Second, in a society where ethical standards in the teachers' community are no higher than among politicians or shopkeepers, the impartial and cheating-free nature of international testing is absolutely vital.

There is nothing particularly difficult about these international tests. As some readers may know, they are pitched at the bachelor's level (i.e. 16 years of education). Chinese, Indian and Iranian students easily score in the 80-90 percentile range. American universities use them as entrance requirements, with medium-quality universities requiring results in the 70-80 range and the very good ones in the 80-95 range.

But achieving even 40 percentile has proved to be too difficult for most Pakistani PhD students even at the end of their PhD studies. This is especially alarming since they have had the advantage of three to four years of additional study. The pathetic quality of undergraduate education in Pakistan is surely responsible for this unfortunate fact. The intensity of the opposition to testing becomes understandable.

Better-equipped Pakistani students, however, welcome international testing. Faced with a meaningful challenge, some of our students have laboured long and hard - and increased their scores spectacularly. About 15 students from my department have cleared the 40 percentile hurdle, and the best have scored around 80. This shows that Pakistani students too can compete - if pushed in the right direction.

For the first time in their lives our students are being confronted head-on with a hard fact: science is all about problem-solving. They have to shape up if they want to play ball. For a change, cheating in examinations is impossible and cramming does not help. The heartening thing is that most students, whether they do well or otherwise, say they learned a great deal of subject matter in preparing for this challenge and felt more educated. Surely this by itself is enormous success.

After years of criticising trends in higher education and the shenanigans of the HEC's former leadership, I feel that the HEC is now doing the right thing. Now it needs to stand by its guns. Of course, there is much more to be done than to merely raise the bar from time to time. A different direction is badly needed.

Broadly speaking, higher education reform must prioritise improvement of teaching quality, particularly in colleges. Numbering about 1,000, they are in a desperate condition. Instead of pampering universities, the government must help colleges improve their infrastructure and teaching quality. The previous model of rewarding so-called research in universities must be drastically revised. This policy has resulted in a flood of papers, the bulk of which are worthy of the trashcan even if published in some 'international' journal.

The fact is that students need sound basic knowledge of their subject if they are to benefit from higher education, as well as to do meaningful research. Genuine research must not be confused with data gathering; it requires strong skills and solid comprehension. For this, the next generation of university students must have good teachers at the college and school level. This, in turn, needs improved teacher recruitment and training.

Hence there is an urgent need to create large, high-quality, degree-awarding teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as master trainers from across the country and from neighbouring countries. Rather than waste precious resources on frivolities, this is the direction to go.

The author teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Dawn

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UAF Syndicate cuts admin down to its size
Faisalabad: The University of Agriculture Faisalabad administration is in a mind-boggling situation as seven of the 12 Syndicate members (having voting right) have declared the appointment of 63 employees legal.

The present UAF administration questioned legality of the appointment of 63 employees (recruited by the previous setup) on the plea that they were hired during election days when the Punjab government had banned any appointment.

The members in their dissenting notes lashed out at the university administration for issuing the Dec 21, 2009 syndicate meeting minutes contrary to the decisions the members took, and asked the management to rectify them.

The employees in question, including professors, associate and assistant professors, lecturers, deputy registrars and deputy treasurer, were recruited almost two years ago as the syndicate approved their appointment on Feb 11, 2008. However, the minutes of that meeting were noted only on Dec 21, 2009 when the last sitting was held.

"The entire process of interviews by the selection board on Feb 6 to 9, 2008 and the consequent recommendations on basis thereof was illegal and in violation of letter dated Jan 11, 2008.

"The matter of appointment of the relevant posts will be reprocessed through the selection board. Similarly, the appointments made pursuant to the decision of the Syndicate dated Feb 11, 2008 also suffer from same illegality and are liable to be reversed to avoid any discrimination.

"Since all appointees are still on probation, it was decided that their services will be dispensed with after due notice and the matter shall be reprocessed through selection board."

Prior to receiving the dissenting notes, sources said, UAF Vice-Chancellor Dr Iqrar Ahmed tried his best to convince the elected syndicate members to support the administration on the issue but without success. The VC had arranged a meeting at his chamber on Jan 5, 2010, inviting Dr Munir Sheikh, Dr Muhammad Inayat, Dr Manzoor Ahmed, Dr Islamuddin Shahzad and Dr Ijaz Ashraf.

The UAF administration claimed that all members, except Dr Shahzad, agreed to support the university.

Documents revealed that the syndicate members, while submitting their observations, rejected the minutes as incorrect. It was decided that the advice of the university legal adviser would be circulated among the members and thereafter the issue would be decided. However, the legal adviser's opinion was not shown to or circulated among the members, they said.

The documents said neither the government nor the Lahore High Court had directed the authorities to dispense with the services of the employees appointed by the syndicate on Feb 11, 2008. Services of an employee can be dispensed with under the Punjab Employees Efficiency Discipline and Accountability Act 2006.

Challenging the administration's stance, the members noted that the public-sector universities in Punjab and the Punjab Public Service Commission also had made appointments during the election period and no hue and cry was raised.

They said the instructions of the government and the chief election commissioner "do not overrule the university act which is a supreme law. And the university employees do not fall in the ambit of civil servants." The ban was supposed to be for civil servants and the letter lost its validity on Jan 8, 2008, they added.

They contended that there was no violation of the university act and statutes and the procedure bore no irregularity towards the selection of candidates. The Para 17 of the Recruitment Policy was categorically about the redress of the recruitment complaints, however, no complaint from the list of applicants regarding transparency and merit was received, they said.

They mentioned that the appointment orders of such employees were issued according to the rules of business of the syndicate after circulating the minutes in March 2008.

The members pointed out that minutes of the syndicate meeting were dispatched to the Governor's Secretariat, a LHC judge and incumbents of the Punjab government well in time and nobody made any observation at that time.

In their dissenting notes the syndicate members also quoted the verdict of a court in an identical situation of appointment made during ban days.

Dr Munir wrote in his note that it was decided that legal advice would be communicated to the members and any decision would be taken after seeking their opinion. However, no such procedure was adopted. The expression 'dispense with' as mentioned in the minutes was premature and must be deleted, he said.

Dr Islamuddin Shahzad said it's an admitted fact that the university advertised a number of posts in consolidated advertisements from 2002 to Aug 23, 2007 and invited applications much earlier than the Punjab government's intimation. Therefore, he said, it could not harm the process of scrutiny of applications, expert opinions, interviews by selection boards, and final appointments by the syndicate.

He noted that if the government letter had any legal and constitutional bar, the responsibility fell on the university authorities. The authority who had to place it before all statuary bodies involved in the recruitment process obviously failed to discharge its responsibilities in a legal and constitutional manner. Therefore, the candidates could not be made to suffer by such irresponsible and illegal action of others, he said.

Dr Inayat said the matter was being resolved by bypassing the university act -- the supreme law. He noted: "It's very unfortunate that a very legal and transparent process has been put into a dispute just by an untimely observation which was made by the additional secretary (planning) of the Punjab government, who received the minutes of the meeting well in time."

He mentioned that other public-sector universities like the Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan and the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore also made appointments during this period.

Another member, Dr Manzoor Ahmed objected that it was never decided to dispense with the services of the 63 employees and take disciplinary action against the authorities for committing irregularities in the recruitment process.

As for fixing of responsibility, he said, the government was equally responsible as a LHC judge, HEC nominees and other officials also attended the syndicate meeting on Feb 11, 2008.

According to Dr Ijaz Ashraf, any instructions/notification of important nature is submitted to the syndicate for adoption, however, this supreme body was ignored on this count.

Two nominees of the chancellor -- MPA (PP-294) Javed Hassan Gujjar and MPA (PP-223) Muhammad Hafeez Akhtar also disagreed with the university decision, saying the unanimous decision as recorded in the minutes was taken at the syndicate meeting. Dawn

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And now English medium Punjab
The PML-N government is all out to transform the province's school education scene in a bid to turn it into "English medium Punjab" without saying it in so many words and avoiding sloganeering as was the case of Chaudhrys' "Parha Likkha Punjab."

The Punjab school education department is preparing to declare some 17,000 schools in the province as "English medium" form the next academic session beginning from April 1 this year. The medium of instruction in the remaining over 44,000 schools will be changed from April 1, 2011.

For the next academic session, the Punjab government will be publishing textbooks in English as well as Urdu for their free-of-cost provision to some 13 million children studying in public sector schools of the province.

In order to achieve this objective, the department has launched an ambitious programme of imparting 'spoken English' skills to all schoolteachers.

The department held a six-day spoken English course for a large number of teachers at Directorate of Staff Development (DSD) and these "master trainers" were now imparting 12-day training to schoolteachers in their own as well as the nearby schools.

This exercise has drawn strong criticism from the teachers' community mainly on two counts; they find spoken English training "meaningless" and have objections to the timing of the course.

The teachers associations organised demonstrations to protest the quality and timing of the training and were planning to hold a "march" from Masjid-i-Shuhada to the Chief Minister's Secretariat coming Friday.

Objecting to the timing of the training, the teachers argue that it is the peak season in schools as the annual examinations are approaching. During January and February every year the school heads go for extra coaching for their students by holding 'zero periods' as well as extra classes after school hours.

They say the education department has further slashed school hours changing the timings from earlier 8.30am-2.30pm to 8.15am to 12.30pm. The training of all schoolteachers begins at 1pm and continues till 4pm. The teachers' associations believe that the right time to hold the training session was either the first two weeks of April or during the summer vacation.

Teachers also find the training too short, arguing that no one can learn to speak English in six or 12 days.

A teacher, who received six-day training at DSD, says: "I asked my UK-returned trainer whether a person can learn to speak English in six days. The trainer had no answer."

Another teacher said the trainer asked them to keep on speaking English in their classes regardless of its form or quality. He contested that if a teacher would speak wrong English, none of his student would ever be able to speak it correctly.

Moreover, the teachers who received six-day training would be conducting 12-day course to impart spoken English skills to the "unwilling participants" who even resented longer stay in schools, he said.

School education Secretary Aslam Kamboh says the department has some resource constraints and cannot afford to invite all teachers to a six day course and offer them TA/DA, besides refreshments. Holding such a course for all 350,000 teachers in the province would cost around Rs6 billion to Rs8 billion, which was not feasible given the resources.

The department, instead, devised a low-cost model of imparting six-day training to English and science teachers and then asking them to impart spoken English skills to their colleagues at a cluster centre, he said.

Kamboh said the English and science teachers had graduate and postgraduate qualifications, adding: "Speaking English is not a matter of training but willingness to speak." He also said that those expressing their dissatisfaction over the training showed that they were eager learners but could not get quality training.

He said the 17,000 schools, being declared English medium from April 1, had 50 per cent of the total enrolment. He said the government would this year print English as well as Urdu textbooks to cater to the needs of the students studying in schools which offered different mediums of instruction.

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Teachers poor performances
Lahore: Punjab Education Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman says headmasters of elementary, secondary and higher secondary schools have been authorised to surrender the teaching and non-teaching staff members on account of poor performance.

In a statement on Sunday, the minister said the headmasters would surrender the teaching and non-teaching staff to the transferring authorities. He said the government had also decided to merge the schools functioning on the same premises into single school.

Junior level schools would be merged into senior level schools under the arrangement. Dawn

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