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Widening access

May 14, 2019

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The writer is a communication skills lecturer at Amity University, Dubai.
The writer is a communication skills lecturer at Amity University, Dubai.

The enigma to be considered and responded to today is to understand the new possibilities of a university and to broaden them — but not to mourn because of the ‘unfair fate’ — Pavel Zgaga.

HIGHER education in Pakistan has been in a crisis for several decades. The inability of colleges and universities to rise up to the challenges of an evolving global learning environment has exacerbated the crisis.

The West has long based its higher educational philosophies on the idea of the university being an amalgam of different concepts. It is not only an institution of learning and research, but an intellectual arena that is constantly changing in response to societal challenges.

Pakistani higher education institutions, on the other hand, have become a cesspit of intellectual and physical borders. Our curriculums remain archaic and students’ learning is far from situated within their experience and circumstances. Most universities in Pakistan continue to model themselves upon the mediaeval academy and have yet to bring about critical change which will be all the more relevant in the wake of the impending higher education budget cuts.

Global universities have long responded to socioeconomic needs by widening their borders to include a variety of learning options, such as degree apprenticeships and vocational credits. This might be helpful for a large part of the Pakistani population that have succeeded in completing secondary education, but find the opportunity cost of a higher education debilitating.

Universities respond to socioeconomic needs by widening their borders.

For those who have to join the job market straight after secondary education, earning a degree through work might be the only means of driving their learning further. A market-driven model can establish a cyclical relationship between universities and the private sector to design outcomes that combine learning and work, and serve as a strong incentive for further education and student retention. Work placements, continued learning and goal-oriented research funded by the private sector may be part of the solution.

There is no dearth of talent and intellect among the young adult population in Pakistan. There is, however, an unfortunate lack of structured opportunity and access to a formal university education, which calls for measures to widen the net. Our relatively incompetent primary and secondary education is often cited as a reason for students’ lack of access to higher education. While it may be an obstacle, it is not the cause. A contextual change in the ways of disseminating higher education may widen access quickly and efficiently.

We live in a world where rapid digitisation might call for connectivism between universities that can share resources to bring students up to speed with the requirements of their curriculum. Communities of students and teachers can share online resources and seek peer advice and support, besides establishing wide social and professional networks.

We have long waited for higher education in Pakistan to start serving the economy and lamented an unfair fate where brain drain has driven top talent away. It might be time for higher education to operate on a model that frees itself from the lasting effects of brain drain by organically producing talent to serve our economic and social needs. This implies widening access to those groups of prospective learners, especially women, who do not pursue post-secondary education due to social stigmas or the demands of a young family.

Universities in Pakistan can possibly offer some palliative measures in the form of a ‘situated learning’ model, by interacting closely with the economy and positioning students where they can learn and contribute. NGOs have mushroomed all over the country in the last few decades, but most of them hire individuals with degrees. Couldn’t post-secondary students learn on the job and be given degrees when they complete four years of training and work with an NGO?

Alternatively, leaders in the market such as Lums and IBA may help provide learning support by opening their doors to students from other universities as ‘visiting’ students. The concept of taking courses in different universities across the country is not a new one. It has been used successfully to help students acquire deeper knowledge where their own university lacks expertise in a particular area. Expectations, in terms of learning outcomes, still remain within the framework and requirements of the home campus where the student is enrolled.

The much-needed innovation in higher education may well propel a growth mindset that can enable Pakistan’s young adult population to help rebuild a dwindling socioeconomic infrastructure. Globally, universities are now experiencing a paradigm shift towards a learner-driven ecosystem and there is no reason for higher education in Pakistan to be left behind.

The writer is a communication skills lecturer at Amity University, Dubai.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2019