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.
(To be concluded)
The author is professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University.
New face of Holocaust
The western world has a bleak, bloodstained history of anti-Semitism. Since time immemorial, Jews have been the persecuted nation throughout Europe. During a period of 1700 years from A.D 250 to 1948, they underwent more than 80 expulsions from various countries. They were subjected to macabre pogroms under numerous pretexts.
They were massacred by the Crusaders when the latter made their way to Jerusalem in A.D 1096, slaughtered during the Black Death for allegedly poisoning wells in the 14th century, butchered by Chmelnicki's Cossacks in Ukraine in the 17th century, and reduced to half of their total population by the gas-chambers of the Nazis in the Second World War.
Anti-Semitism reached its horrendous zenith in the perpetration of the Holocaust, the single largest systemised extermination of a people. Six million Jews were condemned to the gas chambers. Their skin was used to make bags and coats, and their hair utilized for producing brushes.
Fortunately though, the Holocaust served as a wakeup call for the West, which has since realized its wrongs and has attempted to redress them. It has owned up to its regrettable role in the torture of the Jewish people, and has taken measures to ensure that such persecution is never repeated.
So strongly has the fear of anti-Semitism been ingrained in the West today that it has become a societal anathema. However, not entirely unexpectedly, the memory of the Holocaust and the oppression of the Jewish community in the past have come to be misused to lend them unfair advantage in recent times.
Anti-Semitism has become a taboo in contemporary western society, to the extent that even frequent transgressions by the Jews or by the Israeli government are overlooked for fear of any criticism. No one in the West, wants the ostracizing tag of anti-Semitism attached to them. Sadly, this apprehension of the western world is being grossly exploited.
A case in point is the Israeli reign of terror in Palestine, and the meek western response to this methodical barbarism. As a rule, criticism of Israeli violence and the suppression of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza are cast aside rather contemptuously as being "anti-Semitic".
Perplexingly enough, as soon as any opinion is branded with this allegation, no matter how objective it may be, it is gauged not on its own merits but with a preconceived bias against it.
Lamentably, this is the general perception, and is being abused by Ariel Sharon and his henchmen to indulge in the worst sort of state-sponsored terrorism. The revolting memory of the Holocaust still breathes fresh in the minds and hearts of the world community and is being exploited by the Israeli government to its benefit.
Innumerable instances can be sighted of rational criticism of Israel being cast aside as 'spiteful Jewish hatred' by those loath to being censured. Journalists of the calibre and integrity of Robert Fisk are unthinkingly condemned as 'Jew-haters' for the sin of bluntly reporting the truth.
In 2002, Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University, denounced European boycotts of Israel and anti-globalization rallies at which criticism of Israel was voiced, terming them as 'anti-Semitic'.
As the situation stands today, no one in the West wants to don the ignominious tag of being anti-Semitic, considered synonymous to anti-Israeli in the world today. The line is fine, and few want to tread it.
While modern West is heading towards what may be called excessive pro-Semitism, an opposite and extremely disturbing trend is emerging in the Muslims world, primarily in Asia and the Middle East.
As one part of the world attempts to bury old memories of cruelty to the Semites, the other is nurturing fresh hatred for the same. The major cause of this anger is Israeli policy in the Middle East, coupled with the inexplicable silent consent of the United States.
This inexorably leads to the popular charge that certain Jewish interests are responsible for continued American support of Israel's draconian policies in Palestine. Of course, this claim does hold water, considering the substantial economic, and thus political, influence that the Jewish community wields in the United States.
Moreover, the American media, known for its biased coverage of the Middle East crisis, is more or less completely owned by the Jewish community. The largest commercial chain of radio stations in America today, Universal Broadcasting, is owned by a Jew, Miriam Warshaw.
A significant number of the most influential newspapers and periodicals - such as the New York Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, TV Guide, New Republic - to name just a few - are owned by individuals of Jewish background.
One of the largest communications empires in the United States is the Jewish-owned New house chain. It encompasses twenty-six daily newspapers, five magazines, six television stations, four radio stations, and twenty cable-TV systems.
Of course, merely because any instrument of the media is owned by Jewish interests does not necessarily imply that the reporting therein should be biased accordingly. However, the fact that the overwhelmingly Jewish-owned American media has consistently presented a prejudiced account of the Middle East situation in favour of Israel, to the extent of distorting the truth on numerous occasions, does lend credence to cries of Jewish partiality.
The statement of the billionaire Jewish financier George Soros last year, blaming investors like himself along with the policies of Israel and the US for the rising tide of anti-Semitism, indicates that the vituperative charges of the anguished Muslim community may not be baseless after all.
Thus far, the criticism of certain elements within the Jewish community, which unfairly shield Israel from international pressure, is entirely justifiable. However, it sadly does not end here.
An increasing majority in the Muslim world today believes that the Jews, by nature, are a malicious nation. They stubbornly maintain that all Jews in the world, without exception, are continually engrossed in connivances against the Muslims.
This irrational claim is conceived and nourished by fist-clenching theological firebrands of our country, many of whom propagate the belief that indiscriminate killing of Jews is a religious obligation.
People are prone to generalizations. It is ironic to observe that the Muslim world, which has itself been the recent target of unfair prejudice owing to the actions of a deviant few from among its ranks, is discriminating against the Jews in a similar stereotyped fashion.
It somehow refuses to understand the identical situation of the Jews, where the whole nation is blamed for the contravention's of a few. While such intense Muslim hatred of the Jews may be understandable, it is certainly not condonable.
The two extremes, one of western "excessive pro-Semitism" and the growing Muslim anti-Semitism, are extremely alarming. It is high time the educated communities of both parts of the world made an effort to mitigate the state of affairs, and the voice of reason prevailed.
2004: a year of disasters
In many ways 2004 has been one of the most disastrous years in living memory. It started with Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine seeing the worst face of American imperialism. And ended with the devastating tsunami destruction which has killed over 120,000 people, recalling one of Will Durant's more caustic observations: civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.
On the international scene, sporadic violence continued unabated as the United States continued its onslaught on the cities of Mesopotamia. Over 100,000 civilian casualties have been reported in Iraq, and the body bags containing the remains of American soldiers travelled west at regular intervals.
Terrorists continued their attacks which ranged from the simple act of lobbing a grenade into a bus on a busy Haifa street, to the well-planned, remote-controlled device operated with uncanny precision, in which 180 Spanish commuters were killed and 600 injured in a single day in Madrid.
Closer to home, sectarian violence erupted with untold fury, as mosques of various Muslim denominations were bombed and religious leaders assassinated. April and May were the worst months.
Politicians condemned the atrocities, blaming the police for their ineptitude. But the intelligence services also had no answers. A number of conspiracy theories evolved, especially after a highly respected Muslim cleric, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai was eliminated. Shamzai was a staunch supporter of the Taliban and an avowed critic of the Americans
The year saw the passing away of that great Palestinian freedom fighter Yasser Arafat who gave the word "Intifada" to the English language. It also saw the passing away of a former US president Ronald Reagan, whose Star Wars programme helped to bankrupt the former Soviet Union, and Leni Riefenstahl, greatly admired by Adolf Hitler, who directed two remarkable films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
The former classic, which was keenly watched by the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, was banned by the allies after the Second World War, because neo-Nazis were using the documentary to recruit young men and women.
One mustn't forget Marlon Brando, star of the silver screen, who is often mentioned for the wrong films, and whose superb performance as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, nobody seems to remember.
The year saw the re-election of George Bush, which made the religious parties in Pakistan want to fly the flag at half mast, and the victory of the Congress party in India, which put an end to the BJP slogan of "India shining".
Sonia Gandhi's supreme gesture of declining the prime ministership, something that would be unthinkable in Pakistan, evoked generous praise in this country's newspapers. Editorialists mused over the fact that in a country of 800 million Hindus, a Christian woman had stepped aside and made a Sikh the prime minister of the world's largest democracy.
The year also saw Brian Lara, the world's greatest batsman making cricket history as he hit 400 runs in a test match against a much-improved England squad. And the Indians celebrating the 360th anniversary of the majestic Taj Mahal, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan, who subsequently chopped off the right hand of the hundred craftsmen who had fashioned the monument in marble, so that they could never repeat their masterpiece. But the significant development in the region was the thawing of relations been India and Pakistan. There was a time when talks between the two nations were a labyrinth of subterfuges, lies, resentments, suspicions and passions.
The end of the year saw considerably more openness in discussions, and a growing realization that both countries have similar problems and share a scorching account of humanitarian frustrations.
Cricketing ties have been restored, much to the delight of fans in both countries. And numerous delegations of people from various walks of life have crossed the border in both directions drivelling goodwill and peaceful co-existence, and have returned with stories of exemplary hospitality. But while the officials sit across the table and hold bilateral talks, amid much wafting of gesture, nodding sagely at every novel suggestion and swapping elegantly vitriolic jokes at the banquets that follow, the hawks on both sides of the border continue refining their missile technology and assure their impoverished populations that they can strike deep into enemy territory.
On the home front, the government made short shrift of Shahbaz Sharif who was under the mistaken impression that the Supreme Court had allowed him to return home. The aircraft engines hadn't been properly switched off when he was unceremoniously packed off to the holy land.
Asif Zardari's story had a happier ending. He was eventually given bail after being incarcerated for eight years, setting some kind of record for political detention in this country.
The fact that he never asked for mercy or agreed to any deal with the government turned him into a folk hero. After a couple of legal hiccups, he was finally given a passport and a warm send off to join his family in Dubai.
The year also saw a change of prime ministers as the technocrat Shaukat Aziz replaced the feudal Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Predictably the new prime minister talked about economic growth, the building up of foreign exchange reserves, the creation of new jobs and the alleviation of poverty - the sort of things one has heard hundreds of times before from the lips of finance ministers, and nobody believes anymore. But there was not a word about the social ills that plague the country, honour killings, cruelty to women, children and animals, conspicuous consumption and the gradual eradication of feudalism.
However, so firm is his grasp of political nuance, so nimble his argumentative flow, so casual his asides on administrative issues, so studied his mention of the more important issues, the flaws in any argument, the chances of his survival are very great.
The president has also spoken. He is going to continue to wear two hats, having taken this decision in the supreme national interest! A picture is now emerging of a self-righteous cerebral person whose continuance at the helm of affairs has been given a special endorsement by the president of the world's only superpower who said he'd like to see President Musharraf around for the next four years.
The news hasn't gone down too well with the ARD and the leadership of the MMA that continues to poke accusing fingers at the president for breaking a commitment that he publicly made to the nation in a television broadcast. But there isn't very much that the MMA can do.
They can continue their threats to stage public demonstrations. But these threats are beginning to sound hollow and unconvincing. In spite of the fact that the best-administered province in the country is the NWFP, which is under the control of the MMA, the party which advocates extremism, is not popular in other parts of the country.
The sad thing is that Pakistan is moving further and further away from the cherished ideals of the founder of the nation. These ideals are rapidly being reduced to the status of an anachronism, and what one finds amusing is that, like the golden words of Oliver Wendell Holmes which occasionally insinuate themselves into editorials in the United States, the sayings of the Quaid still pop up in newspaper columns and on state television in Pakistan.
The president and the turncoats currently ruling in the national and provincial assemblies certainly don't subscribe to them, nor for that matter, did members of the opposition parties when they were in power. So the question that the thinking man is asking is: why is this farce being perpetuated?
Iraq poll prospects not encouraging
Iraq continues to be in a state of turmoil since March 2003, when the coalition forces, led by the United States, invaded it, accusing the country of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDS) (a completely fabricated charge as events proved). The coalition forces did not find any such weapons which fully exposed Washington's deceit and deception.
Dr Hans Blix, who was director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and, after his retirement, was recalled by the UN, in 2000, to become executive chairman, UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), has also debunked the plea that was used by President Bush and his advisers for a war in Iraq.
It has now been established beyond doubt, that the United States, salivating for oil, invaded Iraq under the pretext of "self-defence" to gain control over its oil fields.
Iraq possesses the world's second largest proven oil reserves estimated at 112.5 billion barrels. Experts also believe that Iraq has massive untapped oil resources putting it almost on par with Saudi Arabia. Iraq's oil is high in quality and inexpensive to produce.
Notwithstanding the general prohibition of the use of force, a state may still use it in self-defence. However, the UN charter provides that only the UN Security Council (UNSC) may order enforcement involving the use of force.
Yet, President Bush invaded Iraq, without a cogent reason, enunciating his pre-emption doctrine that was devoid of legal and moral force and made a mockery of the UNSC of which the United States is a permanent member.
The United States erred in judgment when it said that the Iraqi people would welcome the coalition forces as their liberators. On the contrary, the Iraqi people, regardless of their political and theological affiliations, and despite their meagre military resources and other constraints, put up a fierce resistance against the invading forces which not only continues unabated but has increased in intensity.
A guerilla war is going on in Iraq, which the United States, in spite of its overwhelming military might, has not been able to contain. The United States has failed to accomplish the basic objectives of removing the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein.
During the US presidential elections, President Bush, apart from his ill-advised attack on Iraq, was also severely criticized for the failure of his political and military strategies in Iraq.
He is, therefore, desperately attempting to salvage his prestige and credibility by citing reasons for the invasion if Iraq beyond WMDS and alleged terrorist links, and is now, ostensibly, championing the cause of democracy in that country with great enthusiasm.
However, it is clear that instead of working for the establishment of genuine democracy in Iraq, the US is pursuing a strategy that would perpetuate its hold over it.
One hardly needs to emphasize the critical importance of the national elections in Iraq scheduled for January 30. They have been rightly perceived as the best means to elect a truly representative assembly.
Regrettably, however, stakeholders in the country, the Shia and Sunni communities in particular, have done little to hammer out an agreement that would ensure a fair representation for all religious and ethnic groups in the assembly.
This would have been the only way to ensure the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq. The Iraqi people should not remain oblivious to the fact that the break up of Iraq is being openly suggested in the western media as prescription for dealing with the prevailing situation in side the country.
There is tangible evidence that the United States is purposely fanning the flames of sectarian tension in Iraq which is evident from the growing discord between the Shia and Sunni communities there.
There is no harm if the two major sects in the country seek to protect their long-term political and other interests and insist on a fair and judicious power-sharing formula.
It must be accepted that Iraq, with its diverse religious and ethnic communities, is a pluralistic society where the broad-based principles of democracy have to be adhered to scrupulously.
If there are any differences over power-sharing among various ethnic and religious group, these must be sorted out amicably, through mutual dialogue, in a spirit of Islamic brotherhood so that they can live in harmony and peace.
The Iraqi people must resolutely counter all efforts aimed at driving a wedge between various religious and ethnic groups in the country as it would be detrimental to their supreme national interest.
At a time when new crises and dangers are looming large over the horizon of Middle East, Iraqis of all shades of political opinion and religious affiliations must demonstrate greater perception in their assessment of the situation, in and around their country, especially in view of Washington's declared determination of the US forces' indefinite stay in Iraq that will impinge upon its political independence and vulnerability and also threaten the surrounding countries.
The Iraqi people must show agility and vision to preserve the unity of their country. This is a complicated and difficult task but by no means an impossible one. The fast deteriorating security situation in Iraq, with a corresponding escalation of violence and loss of life, is most distressing.
It cannot, however, be addressed through the use of force, as perceived by the United States and witnessed recently in Fallujah and in other parts of Iraq. The only viable option is the speedy restoration of political independence and sovereignty to that country.
Since the United States has lost the confidence of the Iraqi people, there is a consensus amongst the nations that the UN should play an active role in transferring power from the occupying forces to a popularly elected government in Iraq.
At present, the UN is only helping the Iraqi election commission and is not involved in running the polls itself, which makes the so called democratic process in Iraq an American-sponsored show.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also wants an effective political role for the UN to ensure the restoration of sovereignty to Iraq. It is, however, evident that the United States has no intention of granting the powers needed by the august organization to broker a transition to a genuine sovereignty.
There is a widespread desire amongst the Iraqi people to participate in the forthcoming elections, but some important segments of the society are reluctant, for one reason or another.
It is, therefore, desirable to assuage their concerns so that they may also participate in these elections. Needless to say, holding the elections without the participation of all segments of the Iraqi population would be an exercise in futility and might even be followed by a protracted period of uncertainty in the country, which must be avoided at all costs.
If necessary, the election date may be extended, with the consent of all important segments of the Iraqi people, to make the election process a meaningful and result-oriented exercise and to save the country from sliding towards complete anarchy.
The writer is a former ambassador.