Questioning education

Published April 6, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

ON our national stage, where only the PDM’s survival and the government’s economic policies seem to be worth obsessing over, there is another story which has a small group of people interested. As it concerns the education sector, one should be grateful that even a handful are paying attention.

The government’s decision to remove the Higher Education Commission’s chairman, Tariq Banuri, has provoked a round of allegations and counter-allegations, mostly in the English press.

A spate of opinion pieces have appeared in the English-language papers defending the chairman whose ‘thankless’ fight to improve the standards in higher education hurt the interests of various groups who ‘ganged up’ to push him out. It appeared that he wanted to ensure quality before doling out funds for scholarships, research centres and universities. And as is routine in Pakistan, anyone who wants to stem the flow (regardless of the reasons for it) of money from the government, the reaction is severe. It was a story one had heard so many times, with a few variations here and there.

But then came the counter view. Former chairmen of the commission entered the fray to defend the decision of removal — arguing that scholarships had not been given, poor decisions had been made such as allowing students to proceed on a PhD programme after a Bachelor’s degree and consultants had been hired at heavy salaries. All of this led to a ‘disaster’. (A number of these opinion pieces, covering both sides of the debate, appeared in The News.)

Those with power don’t care too much for the public-sector education system.

But it attracted less attention than any of the other controversies raging in the political domain. On Sunday evening, however, the issue miraculously made it to television in a Hum News show. Tariq Banuri was giving his point of view; he is not averse to publicly admitting that opposition to him came from a former chairman Atta-ur-Rahman who was also present for part of the show to answer the allegations. Banuri argues that he tried to hold accountable research centres dependent on HEC grants including those linked to Dr Rahman and was told by the Prime Minister’s Office itself to let the matter be. Dr Rahman denies the allegations and says the centres simply asked to be judged by relevant experts. (Mohammad Malick’s show, in which both appeared, can be viewed online.)

Ayesha Razzaque, who was also present in the show, and writes extensively on education matters, is perhaps better qualified to speak on the merits of the debate. She mentioned the earlier years of the HEC and how perhaps at that point, it made sense to focus on quantity over quality — which was the focus of the HEC under Dr Rahman, and others, as it encouraged more and more to acquire doctorates, here at home and abroad. But, she added, with the passage of time, it was necessary to prioritise quality.

The conversation (and for once it was a conversation and not a shouting match) brought up vague memories of a discussion with a journalist we lost to the development sector years ago. He was working on education when I met him some time ago when the HEC was a much-favoured institution during the Musharraf years.

Even back then, it seems, a similar debate was going on. He explained that some wondered if it was possible to improve the education sector by pouring money into higher education when the foundation — the school system — was so poor. If poorly trained students were entering the higher educational system, they would end up with questionable PhDs. But then he added that the counter view was that we needed better teachers to improve the schooling and they would come from investing in higher education. It was the classic chicken-and-egg debate.

For myself at least, the present debate over quantity and quality sounds similar.

But more importantly, I wonder what it means when the question hasn’t changed over nearly two decades. Why does it come up only periodically, if that, at moments of crisis?

And the attention is given to the larger policy only when individuals are affected.

Some years ago, the reappointment of Sohail Naqvi, the executive director at HEC, also led to a similar period of debate and discussion in the press. Back then, it was argued by some that his presence was deemed unacceptable because some in the bureaucracy wanted greater control over the funds at HEC’s disposal. And there were also stories about how his reappointment was challenged by the permanent staff at the commission who were against his decision to ‘regularise’ contractual employees. Money mattered back then too.

Once he left, the HEC’s policies rarely got any attention. (Perhaps the only exception is Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy who has continued to criticise the poor quality of research and PhDs candidates being produced under HEC supervision.)

Perhaps a reason for this is the larger apathy with which the education sector is treated; those with power don’t care too much for the public-sector education system and those who do, don’t get to be heard on policy matters. And the political system encourages quantity too — for every constituency politician wants to build public-sector educational institutions without a thought for standards.

And hence, one heard so little of the ‘drastic’ changes made by Dr Banuri at the HEC till the government decided to remove him. In fact, even now one can say that the Single National Curriculum generated more controversy than the higher education sector. For the former threatened to affect the private school system.

This time around, too, something similar is at work. The story will remain in the limelight till there are individuals who can be played against each other. But once they go quiet, the larger issue of whether bigger numbers will eventually lead to better standards, or what standards will have to be ensured, will be forgotten. But it’s the policy debate we need to continue if the education sector is to be fixed.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021

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