Higher education – an appraisal

July : Excellence in higher education is a vital ingredient of national power and prosperity. The world's most powerful and wealthy nations are the ones which lead in the realm of higher education. The regime of President Musharraf has paid due attention to the educational sector and allocated unprecedented funding for education, particularly higher education.

HEC has initiated a series of innovative measures aimed at lifting our universities out of their state of stifled and stunted creativity and also at eliminating the woeful shortage of PhD's. Funding is now available to anyone desirous of conducting scientific research, setting up a laboratory, participating in international conferences, building a research group or building an entirely new institute. 

This unprecedented and fortuitous situation has raised the obvious question – are these steps bearing fruit? Will the Pakistani scientific landscape change as visualised by the relevant leadership? Will our universities become fountains of creativity that will, in due course of time, acquire a global standing? These questions have to be addressed because the influx of money in our universities has raised new issues of a serious nature. One of the most important issues pertains to the question of academic administration and leadership. The experience of the past five years has now clearly shown that funding will not automatically guarantee increased and good quality research output at the desired levels. It also does not automatically result in good governance. The culture of institutions and their administrations has to be transformed.

As Alfred North Whitehead once wrote "The justification of a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and zest of life, by uniting the young and old in the imaginative consideration of learning." It is this attitude that constitutes the true culture of a university. This culture cannot take root without a true desire for contributing to the stock of human knowledge, without genuine tolerance, and without true respect for men of knowledge in both, the highest echelons of power, and the public. Are these conditions met with in this society?

Leadership in a university can only be exercised by one who has earned the respect of the academic community through his/her academic contribution and through his/her integrity and who, most importantly, possesses a vision. Vision stems from a combination of creative experience and wide reading habits. Creative experience enables one to immediately comprehend the needs of a researcher. Wide reading habits are a necessary condition for acquiring a global outlook and a correct perspective.
It is only through a global outlook that one can knit the faculty and its efforts effectively towards a single end – that of institutional uplift to global standards. Institutions are not lifted out of a state of bovine inactivity by tightening one rule or the other, by inaugurating posh buildings, or by setting up so called new departments at the expense of existing and well functioning departments and institutes, or by bully, bluster and deception as some VC's are doing. These structures must emerge out of, and reflect, the organised institutional thirst for joining the march of knowledge. As Salam puts it, the renaissance of sciences in our culture depends upon five preconditions "passionate commitment, generous patronage, provision of security, self-governance and internationalisation of our scientific enterprise." In the prevalent circumstances some of these conditions have been partially fulfilled but others remain completely un-addressed. There is generous financial patronage but there are also other aspects of this patronage that need to be covered. 

HEC has taken steps in the right direction in internationalising our scientific activities. It has made it possible for faculty members to participate in international moots, to spend time at universities of the advanced world, to invite people from abroad, to organise conferences, etc. The only aspect of this program that has been criticised, and in my view partly justifiably, is the program of placing expatriates in our institutions. Some of the expatriates are good but some are dead wood. The one condition that has aggravated in the present set up is self-governance. Due to the very process of appointment of the VC's and continual interference by HEC and others, being a VC and a university teacher has become a humiliating experience. The academic autonomy of universities has been undermined almost totally and this trend has to be halted. This also requires VC's who have intellectual calibre and can communicate with and convince those primarily responsible for this situation. 

On the instance of Chairman HEC the PM ordered the up-gradation of posts of all university teachers. This noble gesture was very symbolic – it did not add much to the salaries of teachers but sent a signal that the job of a university teacher is a job that has status. The universities are troubled by a deep disparity in the salary structure. If you are an expatriate you tend to draw a huge salary while those who have contributed equally, or even more, while living and working in Pakistan, receive a paltry salary. Also some VC's have failed to introduce tenure track in their institutions out of purely political considerations. Perhaps less than 10% university teachers have benefited from tenure track. HEC should think of increased salaries for all the teachers for an initial 3-year period, comparable to tenure track salaries, during which a teacher must publish. Presently, the vast majority of teachers engage in part-time teaching to make ends meet. This, as Chairman HEC must know more than anyone else, is inimical to creative activity. Creativity requires a degree of free time and leisure. So the issue of financial security has to be addressed.Plagiarism is another serious issue. Plagiarism has partly resulted because financial and career benefits have been tied to publication. HEC's policy of zero tolerance for plagiarism is correct and perhaps the only antidote. But unless the VC's have courage and calibre this policy will be hoodwinked and there is not much HEC can do about it. This serious issue needs to be discussed directly with the President and the PM so that HEC can enforce the zero tolerance policy. 

The continual insistence of HEC on Semester system, on introducing extra courses for PhD, and for initiating a 4-year Honours program, etc looks fine on paper. The decision regarding the adoption of a particular system should be taken inside a university. Further, if we do not have enough teachers to run our Master's programs, how can we cope with additional course work at the PhD and MPhil levels? I can assure the HEC authorities that despite tall claims by university authorities, the fact of the matter is that the universities cannot cope with the added course work due to shortage of PhD manpower. This policy is damaging standards because teachers are overworked and cannot do justice to teaching. Policy making without involving the stakeholders can become counter productive and this will become evident in the next few years. But then will the present set up be there? Will there be the most vital element of continuity? 

It is also worth pointing out that teachers have witnessed the onset of serious financial corruption in some of our leading universities due to the influx of billions. The most corrupt university administration in my knowledge has been successful in creating a class of corrupt professors who are aiding and abetting this corruption and partly share the booty. Career advancement for such corrupt professors, who are invariably academically incompetent, also comes with helping a corrupt administration so that there is a nexus in some leading universities between financial, administrative and academic corruption. This is alarming because if an academic institution is run by corrupt people no creativity and advancement can take place. 

The opening up of new universities must now be stopped for a certain number of years. The older and established universities themselves are short of PhD manpower. These universities badly need consolidation. Instead new public and private sector universities are drawing away qualified manpower from older institutions. The new institutions themselves have a thin population of PhD teachers and therefore cannot function effectively at all whereas the older universities are unable to make up for their PhD shortage. The shortfall of PhD teachers resulting from retirement and loss to other institutions in the Punjab University, will not be compensated for in the next five to eight years despite serious HEC efforts. 

There is another aspect of the issue of security. Some of our leading universities are held hostage by politically backed groups of students, teachers and employees tied to one political party or the other. Unless students and teachers are protected against intimidation they will be unable to become fully creative. It is the job of the university administrations to provide such protection instead of making adjustments with such groups out of weakness, or fear of exposure of their own corruption by political blackmailers. Changing the culture of our universities is the best bet to prepare Pakistan for facing the world and earning a dignified place in the comity of nations. To quote Abdus Salam "…as self-respecting members of the international world community we must discharge our responsibility towards, and pay back our debt for the benefits we derive from the research stock of world science, thus avoiding that lash of contempt for us – unspoken but still there – of those who create this knowledge."

The writer is a former Dean Faculty of Science, University of the Punjab



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