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Crunch time for universities

Updated May 04, 2019

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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

AS Pakistan’s economy heads south, some in higher education are panicking. Cutbacks for scientific equipment, reduction in travel grants for conferences abroad, fewer government overseas scholarships, and elimination of research grants for fresh PhDs are now happening. Construction work on some new university campuses has stopped. Although the Higher Education Commission (HEC) says it can accommodate the budgetary cuts, several projects will be axed.

As money dries up, some bad things will surely happen: student fees are bound to increase, scholarships will decrease, and universities in rural areas will bear a disproportionate share of the burden. But the crunch might still be a blessing in disguise. This is a wakeup call pointing to the horrific haemorrhage of scarce national resources from within the higher education system.

Why continue to collect hugely expensive but barely used scientific equipment? Or reward trash publications that masquerade as research? Why should university faculty and administrators enjoy overseas junkets to Europe and elsewhere? Rather than pamper ignorant professors with fantastic salaries, the worst ones should be fired. And, instead of sending mediocre students to mediocre overseas universities, only exceptionally capable students should be funded for studying at the very best ones.

Pakistan’s higher education is in terrible shape but money cannot fix it. Its crisis is three-fold: the crisis of freedom on university campuses, the crisis of intellectual impoverishment, and the crisis of ethics and morals in both students and their teachers.

Pakistan’s broken university system cries out for basic attitudinal changes; money cannot fix it.

Our universities have run smack into the brick wall of religious orthodoxy, negating the very purpose of higher education. Fundamentally, a university seeks to create agency, ie minds capable of thought and action going beyond the received wisdom. Real universities around the world — unlike the ones we have — do not meekly follow; they provide leadership by producing individuals who create, invent, and can imagine. Unless personal and intellectual freedoms are protected, this is impossible.

Tragically, individual expression is brutally throttled on our campuses. Dr Khalid Hameed, professor of English at Bahawalpur University, was stabbed to death by a fanatical student for organising a gender-mixed farewell party to be followed by a traditional jhoomar dance. The young murderer is proudly unrepentant. Only a murmur of protest followed at BU.

Or take Mashal Khan, lynched by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University on a false blasphemy allegation, whose dead body was dragged across campus as hundreds cheered and video-taped the event. Junaid Hafeez, the once-young brilliant lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University, has spent six of his 29 years in solitary confinement in Multan jail as he awaits trial.

University administrators tightly regulate students. Some universities — University of Engineering & Technology (Lahore) and Bahria University (Islamabad) — officially imposed the headscarf upon female students. But most institutions need not because terrified students self-conform. Behavioural changes at Quaid-i-Azam University are stark when I compare to 1973 — my first year of teaching there. The veiled ones in my physics classes are silent note takers, rarely mustering the courage to ask a question.

The second crisis: intellectual impoverishment and poor subject knowledge. Partly exempt from this criticism is art, architecture, management, most social sciences, and even areas like agriculture and biotechnology. But the level of incompetence is almost unbelievable when it comes to the ‘hard sciences’ like mathematics, computer science, physics, advanced engineering or theoretical chemistry. Within each of these disciplines, just a handful of Pakistani professors deserve their PhD degrees; the remainder would flunk undergraduate exams at places like Stanford, MIT or Cambridge and most wouldn’t get through the challenging entrance exams to India’s IITs.

Incompetence runs through the university faculty, vice chancellors, and to the HEC itself. One HEC chairman, in a Dawn article, suggested that the HAARP experiment in Alaska — finally scrapped in 2015 — set off earthquakes and floods in Pakistan. Another former HEC chairman publicly proposed that terrorist cells in universities would close down if parents “switch off TV and internet early at night and send students off to bed”. A highly placed and influential serving VC co-supervised a physics PhD thesis claiming that looking at different colours could cure cancer.

The third crisis is of institutional morality. Being selected for a teaching post may have little to do with your subject ability. Instead a combination of your ethnicity, personal connections, religious beliefs and social outlook determines the outcome. Cheating and plagiarism by teachers or students is generally okay, punishable only when some other factors go against a particular individual.

Absent is a collegial culture that values scholarly achievement and the virtues of honesty, rigour, correctness, originality and cooperation. But these very qualities make a university good or bad, not its buildings or playing fields! Many departments are wracked by bitter turf wars. Often because of petty and personal issues, many are not even on speaking terms with their colleagues.

This bleak scenario is unlikely to change soon, and will never change unless one grasps the nettle and somehow forces through major attitudinal changes. Those who point to international university rankings that rate certain Pakistani universities well fool themselves. These for-profit foreign organisations perform nonsensical assessments from afar, using simple number crunching. They have no way to assess local situations or tell fake data from real. (QAU has no engineering department but ranks just below Cornell University according to the 2018 Shanghai List!)

Instead, let us ask how scarce public money should be best spent today. The wisest course is to invest in creating and maintaining universities located far from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Rural ‘universities’ — though not real universities — shouldn’t be held up to false standards. Even if academically poor, they serve an important social purpose.

For the rural youth — whose numbers are exploding — such universities offer upward mobility and a chance to interface with the modern world. For young women who otherwise would never experience a life outside their homes, this is particularly important. Encounters with students and teachers in several rural institutions — most recently at Sargodha University last week — make me optimistic. In such places a sensible, upright vice chancellor can make a big difference. Some such individuals exist, but sadly are far too few.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2019