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More than numbers

September 20, 2016


THE liberal arts programmes emerging on the horizon of higher education in Pakistan are an unusual addition. A curriculum that emphasises both the arts and sciences does not fit in snugly. The approach to learning in the country does not jibe with the examinations system, nor does it necessarily offer job-ready qualifications.

The liberal arts model is labelled by some in the subcontinent as ‘easy’ and in the US as ineffective and expensive. Yet liberal arts approaches to higher education are incredibly important in a global economy — all the more so in countries where young people have limited access to quality education. Liberal arts programmes directly address what educators and students regularly complain about in Pakistani education, and fulfil the goals enunciated by policymakers.

As the HEC prepares for another budgetary year of boosting numbers — of laptops, graduates, and publications — might we gain from a qualitative change in how we prepare young people for their future?

Rethinking approaches is important because I doubt anything will change in a system that is premised on quantity. Over a million students enrolled in universities and degree-granting institutions just last year, not a small achievement compared to 200,000 just 10 years ago. But it does not mean the education is very good. Further, how these graduates distinguish themselves is through ‘quantity’. In other words, ‘higher’ scorers from ‘better’ or higher-ranked universities are thought to be stronger candidates for employment. Meanwhile, we ignore how well prepared young people really are, and just how they got to those numbers.

Liberal arts education is critical in a dynamic global economy.

Finally, the system of merit is premised on numbers from HEC that tell us how ‘good’ universities are. As researcher Idrees Khawaja has argued, a ranking system based on the number of students, instructors, and published papers reveals very little. The ranking system is a rough indication of how far we have come but what little ground has actually been covered.

These conditions make liberal arts approaches all the more important. One major difference between the approaches of liberal arts programmes and professionally oriented education (eg business or engineering) is a curriculum focused on art and science. Other differences include how material is taught, how the curriculum is organised, and how students are assessed. Science, along with the humanities and social sciences, serves as a core that also includes a foreign language. Students fulfil a regimented distribution of classes while instructors evaluate students on how they use what they learned, rather than asking students to regurgitate what they learn.

The curriculum and pedagogy of the liberal arts are critical in a dynamic global cultural economy; they serve as an important part of a larger landscape of higher education that prepares students to be trained not just in ‘skills’ but also intellectual development. In other words, the goal is not to train workers but to nurture citizens. Advocates argue that the curriculum better enables young people to solve problems, communicate, collaborate and create.

To reimagine higher education is to expect more of our youth; it also ramps up our expectations of the education process more generally. The liberal arts model challenges the way we currently conduct the entire process of teaching and learning. As an instructor at an institution of higher learning in Pakistan, I saw firsthand how a narrow focus on pre-professional education, the examination system, and even PowerPoint presentations stifles young people. Adopting new approaches to higher education in this country raises many questions and spurs innovation and further reform of higher education in Pakistan.

What do we teach, how do we teach, and how do we assess? If the ability of students is not tested in exams, what materials are needed? The liberal arts model of higher education has transformative potential for young people along with teachers and policymakers.

The good news is that funding for the HEC is increasing and there is more policy focus on higher education. The trouble is that international and local studies as well as news reports in the country, and my own experience, show that young people are unhappy with what they learn, and employers are dissatisfied with candidates.

What a boon would a generation of women and men trained in a core curriculum with other subjects be? How much would Pakistan gain from a generation of young people encouraged to pursue their passion, their leadership potential, and their desire to contribute to society? They may actually have an important economic impact, perhaps restoring credibility to education again after it is stripped of humanistic and social cultural values and transformed into an economic instrument.

A rigorous education that helps young people to think independently, to gain perspective while gaining the skills they need, fulfils the potential of our next generation and spurs larger change in society and the economy.

The writer is an anthropologist.

Published in Dawn September 20th, 2016