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ONCE upon a time there was a nation. In that nation lived some scholars of Urdu language and literature, who had little formal education but were able to write books that served as raw material for research and higher education. Many became real scholars by reading those books or making those scholars their mentors.

Those scholars and their disciples wrote some brilliant research papers that appeared in Urdu literary journals, though not “approved” by Higher Education Commission (HEC) as HEC simply did not exist back then. Yes, believe me. Urdu research did exist before the HEC was born.

But then calamity struck, as it does in every story. Those scholars left for their heavenly abodes one after another. The apparently little-educated scholars were real researchers and expanded the borders of knowledge, as this is what research actually does. Left behind were their disciples, who were formally educated at universities and who did their best to maintain the standards. But once those disciples too departed this mortal world, leaving behind a host of semi-educated students, mostly holding PhDs in Urdu, the standard of research and higher education received a fatal blow.

No, no, do not put that tissue-paper box away yet, you will need it as the story gets more tragic down the road. Nature was to unleash more disaster, as it used to happen in Pakistani Urdu movies some four decades ago. The more tears one shed in the movie theatre, the higher the rating the movie earned. So the story writers and directors made sure that every possible misfortune did strike the main character. In our tragic story, that main character is Urdu research.

The real tragedy struck when HEC was formed. Establishing HEC was a good idea. Established with all good and sincere intentions, HEC indeed improved the standards of higher education and research in the country. It must have done a lot good to research in other disciplines, especially sciences. But for some disciplines in humanities and arts, it wreaked havoc. I would limit my remarks to Urdu since I have not much exposure to research in other fields of knowledge. What happened with Urdu research cannot be termed as anything except ‘disaster’, despite all the good intentions showed and strict measures taken by HEC. Perhaps Urdu-walas are to blame themselves.

First HEC asked the university teachers, aspiring for a promotion, to get published research articles in “HEC-approved” research journals. Also, a PhD was made a basic requirement for becoming an assistant professor at a university. Then PhD allowance was enhanced. The basic pay scales of university teachers were increased and a lecturer would begin from grade 18 instead of 17. Now that prompted teachers to do PhD and get some papers published.

HEC did a right thing, one may argue, as it motivated the teachers to get down with their research if they wanted to get ahead. Instead, what began was an ugly rat race. Get a PhD, by hook or crook, and you are promoted as assistant professor. Get 10 research papers (classroom notes, in fact) published and you become an associate professor with a whiz. Get published five more research papers (in fact your back-of-the-envelope jottings for an undergrad lecture) in some ragtag research journal and lo and behold! You are a professor, drawing a salary in grade 21. Now you may rest assured that there is no more research, no more work to be done.

All hell broke loose when Urdu journals began their endeavour to get on HEC’s approved list of research journals. Since it gives you clout among the scholars and you get paid as well by HEC in the process, every journal claimed to be a research publication. The age-old, hackneyed notes became PhD (Urdu) dissertations. The poorly written essays are published as research articles. What has hastened the decline of Urdu research lately is HEC’s decision to grant an MPhil even to those students who do not write a dissertation and just clear two additional courses after their two-semester course work. This has resulted in a proliferation of private universities, especially in Punjab’s small cities. Established in a rented house of a few rooms, some of these so-called universities enrol as many as 80 students in a semester and charge hundreds of thousands of rupees per semester per student. Every student gets through the exams with flying colours and gets an MPhil in Urdu.

Another “facility” available for such students is a tailor-made PhD dissertation. Rumour has it that a group of university professors in Lahore has been selling PhD dissertations for Rs500,000. Each professor writes a chapter, they divide the money among themselves ‘honestly’ and the student may submit the thesis within six months. No one can stop these PhDs from becoming a professor as soon as they get some research papers published in HEC-approved journals.

The severity of the situation may be gauged by the fact that an HEC-approved research journal of Urdu has been publishing ghazals. Since when have ghazals become research papers, can be explained only by the brains serving on HEC’s Urdu research journal committee.

So take heart, get an MPhil in Urdu without having done any actual research. And if it sounds unethical, establish a private university and start an MPhil (Urdu) programme. In that way you may turn the sad end of the story into a happy one.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2018