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Education challenge

September 11, 2017

ONLY four Pakistani universities made it to the top 1,000 in the Times Higher Education’s annual World University Rankings, down from seven last year. That’s an appalling proportion given that Pakistan is the fifth-most populous country in the world, and with a significant youth bulge.

Cynics might marvel that any Pakistani universities feature on the rankings. Patriots might fume at the exclusion of prestigious institutions such as Lums, AKUH and IBA. Academics are likely to point to the many fallacies in the rankings themselves; for example, the focus on measurable factors such as funding and volume of research publications, rather than the quality of tuition. This critique is particularly relevant in Pakistan since a 2002 decision to link government funding to research productivity has led local institutions to game the system by churning out sham research in publications with a dodgy — or non-existent — peer review culture. But the ranking has value in that it is yet another reminder of the sorry state of higher education in Pakistan.

In recent months, we have been inundated with stories highlighting the crisis unfolding on our campuses. The issue of student radicalisation has been well documented thanks to Saad Aziz’s violent activities, Naureen Leghari’s recruitment by the militant Islamic State group, and the recent involvement of a former Karachi University student in the assassination attempt on MPA Izharul Hassan. These examples were preceded by tales of music departments being forced off campuses by the student wings of religious political parties, Al Qaeda militants seeking sanctuary in hostels, and militant groups targeting students through social media.

Critical thinking is urgently required.

But radicalisation is not the only challenge facing educational institutions. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy has repeatedly highlighted the issue of corruption at universities resulting from cash incentives for research publications.

The politicisation of our campuses is another issue. Mashal Khan’s heinous lynching was primarily viewed as a sign of growing extremism on campuses but as the investigation into the murder showed it was more about campus politics. Khan’s death occurred because of competing party interests, criminality and the complicity of university officials at the highest levels in corrupt behaviour, including politicised hiring practices and the fostering of armed wings of political parties on campus. Rather than insulting religion, it was criticising the university administration that probably cost Khan his life.

There are many who disagree with a focus on higher education, saying that Pakistan must first prioritise universal access to primary education. This is a simplistic argument — we cannot pick and choose. A country cannot advance without the input of independent thinkers and problem solvers. Indeed, it must be our university graduates who coin the policies that lead to a better public education system for all.

The HEC has taken a welcome step to call for universities to crack down on campus radicalisation. A recent letter by the commission’s chairman calls for improved security, faculty monitoring of public spaces and more counselling of vulnerable students. More importantly, the letter recognises the need for extracurricular activities, sports, tutorials and public lectures to promote tolerance as ways to combat extremism.

Unfortunately, a securitised and censorial rather than discourse-driven approach is likely to be adopted in the fight against university radicalisation, and to the neglect of other issues plaguing institutions. Consider the recent proposal to open up student records to scrutiny by law-enforcement and intelligence personnel. As an editorial in this paper rightly pointed out, such access would be both useless in terms of identifying potential militants and counterproductive owing to the chilling effect it would have on the academic environment. Sadly, our state infrastructure is better equipped to monitor and harass than facilitate discourse.

Optimists have suggested that CPEC — the answer to all Pakistan’s woes! — will also save its educational culture. Technology transfer centres and labs envisioned under the corridor are no doubt welcome. But the Chinese are hardly known for fostering the kind of critical thinking that is urgently needed for Pakistan’s state and society to thrive. This is one challenge we will have to address without help from our friends.

There is an inherent irony in Pakistani culture. We have great regard for scholars (as reflected in media personalities’ and politicians’ need to cling to the honorific of doctor, even if it’s not strictly accurate). But there is little interest in ensuring that the titles are meaningful and well earned. Indeed, the unthinking deference to so-called experts is itself a sign of the lack of critical thinking — and the submission to authority that it enables — in society at large. Better thinking is needed to help close the gaps.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2017