Higher learning

Published March 27, 2023

UNIVERSITIES are like incubators where new, bright ideas are born, and where young minds pursue journeys of intellectual discovery. Sadly, in Pakistan, as with the rest of the education sector, seats of higher learning are not immune to multiple crises, affecting output. As reported recently, only 12 Pakistani varsities — out of over 100 — made it to the QS world subject rankings.

Commenting on the rankings, the Higher Education Commission chairman told this paper that only those varsities appeared on the list that shared their data with the firm, while acknowledging that there was a need to improve the quality of public-sector universities.

The global ranking of universities by various firms is, of course, not free from controversy, as some academics have questioned the transparency of the process, but there can be little doubt that in the current scenario, universities in Pakistan — with a few honourable exceptions — are hardly delivering world-class graduates.

Since at least the Musharraf era the focus seems to have been on quantity rather than quality. The late general revamped the HEC and provided it with ample funds, but in the decades since, we have yet to see any great flowering of intellectual talent in our varsities. Both the public and private sectors have their own issues.

Most public universities, which are the only option for the vast majority of students, are run in a bureaucratic manner, and suffer from intense internal politics. There are also issues of intellectual honesty, with some professors producing papers at supersonic speed, apparently only to secure promotions.

Moreover, the blight of plagiarism is found aplenty in our varsities. In the private sector, while it is a fact that some of our best institutions are privately run, most varsities focus on profits, and mass produce graduates of little value.

Sadly, some institutions are little more than degree mills, and their graduates add little of substance to the job market. Unless these issues are adequately addressed, the future of Pakistani higher education will continue to look dismal, and we will keep losing our best minds to greener pastures.

No doubt the public sector faces a massive funding crunch, which needs to be tackled. But apart from writing cheques, more effort is required to improve the quality of teaching at our universities, and to foster a climate of academic freedom and prioritise the pursuit of knowledge.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2023

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