THE undergraduate degree is the flagship of any higher education system. However, in Pakistan very little attention was given in the past to the substance and quality of undergraduate education. To address that gap, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has decided to revamp the undergraduate system to ensure that students get a useful, meaningful, and practical education which increases the likelihood of their success.
The HEC approach to revamping followed two broad trajectories. On the one hand it was inclusive and partnership-based, towards which end the commission organised and conducted two dialogues, five consultations, and 10 workshops. A total of 143 universities from across the country and Azad Kashmir were represented in these events, and over a thousand people participated. The participants included vice chancellors/rectors, members of university and college faculties, college principals, secretaries and other officials of the governments’ higher education departments.
There was an overwhelming appreciation and acceptance of the HEC’s efforts as well as offers of support.
The other trajectory was academic in nature, for which the HEC organised numerous focused discussions with academics to benefit from their knowledge, experience and understanding, to interrogate and analyse inputs and feedback from the above-mentioned events, and to examine and learn from the international best practices.
The grand objective of revamping is to provide competence-based education (CBE). It comprises the following four observable and measurable aspects: knowledge, which is the cognizance of facts, truths and principles of a particular field.
Skills, which is the ability to perform physical or mental activities in a particular profession, as well as to think critically and creatively and to learn how to learn.
Behavioural attributes, which include characteristics like agency, adaptability, honesty, curiosity, and punctuality.
Interpersonal qualities that include empathy, self-confidence, inclusiveness, leadership, and collaboration.
The revamping aims at preparing students to apply the acquired knowledge and skills to life’s challenges, rather than merely acquiring theoretical knowledge. It emphasises exploration, curiosity, discovery, and creativity amongst students.
Finally, undergraduate degrees have been designed to be terminal degrees. It means that while some students may seek further education in order to become active researchers, or to satisfy their curiosity or out of a desire to burnish their credentials. But no one should feel compelled to do so because of the inadequacy of education.
The revamped curriculum has two learning pillars — academic and practical experience. Through courses of the academic programme, students will gain in-depth knowledge and understanding of a subject, develop skills, and earn credits towards their degree.
Through internships and extra-curricular activities students will gain practical experience, but not earn credits.
The academic component of the curriculum strikes a balance between breadth and focus. Breadth will be addressed in early semesters by requiring every student to complete General Education (GE) courses in Arts & Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Quantitative Reasoning, English Expository Writing, Pakistan Studies, and Islamic/Religious Studies. The GE courses will ensure that every student is acquainted with a broad variety of fields of enquiry and approaches to knowledge in the21st century.
These courses will not be subject-focused, but of a survey or skills development nature, and related to everyday life.
Focus will be catered by taking departmentally required courses in any area of specialisation.
The recommended academic programme stresses breadth and diversity in the earlier semesters, and moves towards increasing concentration in the later semesters. This sequencing will familiarise students with a variety of knowledge domains in the earlier semesters and in the third semester students will make an informed choice of the area of specialisation, or major, in which they want to acquire in-depth knowledge and understanding.
The key to this sequencing is providing students flexibility (in the choice of a major). The curriculum is so designed that a student can graduate with a single major, or a double major, or a major and one or two minors.
Practical experience is being made mandatory so that students get experience of the work environment and working with others as these are essential real-world life skills.
This will be achieved by completing an internship and participating in extracurricular activities like entrepreneurship, or clubs/associations, or sports.
Although the practical work will be evaluated and included in the students’ record, it will not have letter grades.
The above framework and objectives will apply to all undergraduate degrees, including the four-year Bachelor Studies degree (BS), degrees in any of the professions (MBBS, BE, LL.B, and the like), and the two-year Associate Degree (AD).
However, for the different types of degrees some details may vary, but the structure will be the same.
The redesigned undergraduate programme will make it possible for students to switch between degree programmes. So, AD holders may apply for admission to a BS programme and get transfer of credits from their AD to the BS programme.
Similarly, a student admitted to the BS programme may exit with an AD. Further, a student admitted to a professional degree programme may apply for transfer to a general degree programme or vice versa.
However, switching between programmes will be based on the admission policy of the admitting institution, which will also determine how many of the earned course credits and completed practical experience hours can be transferred.
The HEC recognises that the quality of undergraduate education cannot be improved solely by revamping the curriculum. To improve quality, at least the two closely associated areas of pedagogy and quality assurance also need to be revamped.
Work in that direction has started in parallel with the curriculum reform initiative.
Dr Zulfiqar Gilani is a former VC of the University of Peshawar and the Rector of Foundation University. He leads the HEC revamping effort
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2020