Spend with prudence

Published January 21, 2022

THE appointment process against Pakistan chairs at the foreign universities is believed to have started. The editorial ‘Empty university chairs’ (Feb 13, 2020) had highlighted the issue which may have played a part in the process.

There is a lack of clarity about these chairs and it has a complex history. In this time of austerity in Pakistan, it is crucial that the use of public funds is optimised. The chairs at the Oxford University and the Cambridge University cost £312,000 individually for five years. Their impact needs to be evaluated.

The previous high commission officials can provide invaluable feedback because of their interaction with the chair holders in the past. I also had the opportunity to closely interact with the scholars on the Jinnah Chair at Oxford University and the Iqbal Chair at Cambridge University since the mid-1990s.

First of all, at Oxford and Cambridge these are called fellowships, not chairs. In the university bureaucratic structure, these are associate fellowships like post-docs. The scholars used to come on a university work visa. The university would receive a lump sum from the Pakistan government’s education department and would pay the scholars monthly.

This has changed, as these days the fellows come on an associate fellowship visa and are paid monthly by the high commission. There is a common perception that the monthly payment from the high commission has compromised the academic freedom of the fellows. There are also concerns that the fellows have to go through intense scrutiny by the intelligence agencies during the process of appointment and their term as fellows.

The unstated objective of these chairs and fellowships is to present Pakistan’s narrative. Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had established these fellowships to counter the narrative in the aftermath of the 1971 debacle. The chair at Berkeley was established much earlier.

In this day and age, the parameters of soft diplomacy have changed. The ministry of education needs to rethink the objectives of these chairs and fellowships. It would be a wise decision to establish these fellowships independent of any interference from the authorities in order to allow the scholars to purely focus on academic work. The scholarly contribution of the fellows has to be evaluated in terms of the quality of publications produced and the courses taught by the fellows.

If it is not possible for the ministry to redefine the unstated objectives and bring them within the fold of the university, it would be a prudent decision to divert the budget to the universities in Pakistan that are struggling to pay salaries and/or pension benefits because of 10-15 per cent cuts in their budgets by the Higher Education Commission.

Nadir Cheema
London, United Kingdom

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2022

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