AS a nation, we are known for our rather reckless experiments in critical domains. Even by our own standards, however, no sector has been subjected to as much experimentation, and as much recklessness as the higher education. The cumulative effect is that the domain, while lying as a bewildering welter of pre-colonial and colonial impulses, has lagged miles behind where it should have been in the 21st century. As if the confusion was not enough already, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) introduced a new undergraduate policy. Anyone having the slightest working knowledge of global trends in higher education stands stunned at the wisdom, or rather the lack of it, of our policymakers.

The Undergraduate Education Policy 2020 introduced a scheme of studies to familiarise undergraduate students with a broad variety of fields of inquiry and approaches to knowledge. The minimum requirement for a prospective student to qualify for a BS degree has been set at 120 credit hours, out of which a student is required to opt for general courses of 39 credits. The courses that are compulsory regardless of the choice of specialised field are supposed to be completed by the end of the fourth semester.

The first category is that of the breadth courses, encompassing the broad disciplines of arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, out of which two courses each have to be studied. The foundational skills courses make up the second category, having three expository and two quantitative reasoning subjects. Two subjects each in Pakistan Studies and Islamiat fall within the scope of civilisational courses.

Notwithstanding the claims of all this having been done in the name of streamlining higher education, one may wonder how far the sector is with the trends and priorities of the modern era. A cursory look at the policy reveals that it hardly rests on the ideals of objectivity and rationality. It fails to take note of the practical constraints and institutional anomalies infecting our universities that are creaking under the burden of drastic cuts in grants. It is something that many believe to be precipitating the unprecedented current crisis in the universities that are already on a ventilator and might end up dead.

Practically speaking, our public-sector universities are incredibly ill-equipped to implement the new scheme because of the unavailability of surplus faculty for teaching subjects like Philosophy, Logic, Critical Thinking, Psychology, etc. They can hire them, right? No, actually, because there are financial limitations.

More often than not, students are faced with a Hobson’s choice between X and Y, or Y and X, which is no option at all when it comes to picking subjects from the pool of general courses. The policy is nothing but paperwork cloaked in the garb of a framework.

Any attempt at introducing reforms in the higher education sector without factoring in elementary and secondary education is going to be nothing but total fiasco. The universities will fare better only when all sectors of the education system, including technical and vocational, get the attention they deserve.

Farrukh Aziz
Sukkur

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2023

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