EDUCATION serves, at the very least, a dual purpose. On the one hand, education creates a skilled and well-trained workforce essential to a thriving private and public sector. On the other, through offering at a single location — the university — a multiplicity of areas of study, a certain sensibility and culture is created that one might call social capital. By bringing together scholars in a variety of disciplines, the university cultivates a citizenry that appreciates the interconnectedness of disparate fields of study and the elements needed to create a vision for the future and to develop a sense of common purpose.
Moreover, in promoting higher education, a nation declares that it values learning for its own sake and welcomes the innovation and creativity that often results from it. Ideally, the university becomes a site that transcends the petty goals of individual careers and helps to elevate the needs of society as a collective body.
Our educational system fails to accomplish either of the goals outlined above. Although we have seen the proliferation of universities over the last few decades, most of them have inadequate academic standards and are run as businesses committed to the mass production of graduates with very little actual education. At a basic level, it is due to the lack of well-qualified faculty but it is also due to a lack of commitment to education as a goal in itself.
Concomitant with the inadequacy of the education provided by these institutions, a second negative development is undermining their purpose: the forced mass production of ‘research’ papers. This development is taking place due to the needs of a bureaucratised education system too lazy or incompetent to evaluate the quality of research output by itself. Instead, it has substituted quality control of research with simply counting the number of research papers produced as a metric for evaluating competence. By instituting this easily gamed system, they have set themselves up for widespread fraud.
There is new turmoil in Pakistan’s higher education system.
The majority of research papers produced at our institutions do not pass rigorous peer review. If they are published at all, it is in journals with low standards or through the occasional random one passing the filters of peer review despite their low quality. The emphasis in promoting research has thus shifted from quality to quantity and is being used to create what Daniel J. Boorstein has called the “illusion of knowledge” and as he states, it has become an obstacle to discovery and the production of actual knowledge.
The aforementioned imposition of quantitative metrics was introduced by the Higher Education Commission, which was formed during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s reign as military dictator. The HEC replaced the University Grants Commission. Dr Atta-ur-Rahman was appointed as the chairperson of the HEC. While the commission did some good work, its impact was overwhelmingly negative due to the policies formulated by the HEC in shifting the emphasis from quality to quantity with the adverse consequences that have been outlined above.
There is new turmoil in the system of higher education in Pakistan. In order to discuss it in proper perspective, it is helpful to revisit The Magna Charta of European universities, which was approved and adopted in 1988 in Bologna. While the entire document is of relevance to thinking about universities and higher education, a particularly relevant part for Pakistan states that the university’s “research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power”. That is, government and business interests must not interfere in the running of the university.
In the case of Pakistan, one may also add that the university should be free of any externally imposed ideological constraints. Recent changes made by the government in the structure of the HEC has put the system of higher education under government control and is causing turmoil among the educated of Pakistan.
These changes go against the Magna Charta referenced above and are undermining the open and free atmosphere of universities and other institutions of higher learning and research in the country. By constraining freedom of speech and thought, openness to intellectual influence, and by imposing ideological constraints, the government is depriving the university of the essential ingredients it needs to promote a culture of learning, innovation and creativity. Without these elements, it is undermining the very basis for a thriving national culture.
The writer is a physicist who served as professor of physics, and dean of Natural Sciences at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2021