Not too long ago, an acquaintance shared with me the link of a recent research paper, ostensibly profiling “Well-Known Pakistani Muslim Feminist Women.” It was published in the December 2023 edition of the Journal of Positive School Psychology, by two researchers of the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Lahore.

The link was accompanied with an apology note from my acquaintance. “I sincerely apologise, Rubina,” it read. “It’s disheartening to see a mindset persisting in our universities that disrespects religious identity, by categorising a Christian as Muslim. It seems we are not committed to fostering diversity and inclusivity in our country.”

I followed the link to the article. From the abstract, it seemed the article explores how feminism, in its diverse interpretations, confronts power structures and ideologies. After a brief categorisation of different types of feminism, such as liberal, Marxist, radical and socialist, it then perfunctorily moves on to the situation in Pakistan and the “plight of prominent feminist women” in Pakistan. It “delves into” the contributions of four ‘Muslim’ feminists: Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, Asma Jahangir, Tehmina Durrani and me, Rubina Feroze Bhatti. The article, erroneously, identified me as a Muslim.

Undoubtedly, being featured in an article alongside female leaders of significant stature in my country was a great honour for me. Nevertheless, it became evident that the article did not adhere to international standards, particularly authenticity, highlighted by the researchers incorrectly referencing the religious identity of their research objects.

The quality of research being produced by some of Pakistan’s universities is indicative of plummeting standards of scholarship. But tackling the systemic rot requires more than increased funding

For me, the study raised two significant concerns. Firstly, it prompted questions about the quality of research and the state of the higher education system in Pakistan. Secondly, it highlighted the often-overlooked contributions of religious minorities in different spheres of life.

A DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Over a decade ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist, author and distinguished professor, had cautioned that Pakistan’s public universities were deficient in true universality, falling behind in teaching and research quality.

Teaching in Pakistan often involves regurgitating outdated notes, exams prioritise rote memorisation over comprehension, and academic fraud is widespread, often without consequence. Despite a substantial increase in funding, improvements in higher education have remained modest, raising the question whether increased funding alone can address systemic issues.

For many years, academics have been voicing concerns over the decline in higher education standards due to the mushrooming growth of universities — in both the public and private sector. There have been calls to strengthen the universities, which are facing a financial crunch.

Allegations of insufficient due process have surfaced in the Senate as well as among political figures, civil society and academics. Most recently, these concerns arose in the aftermath of the National Assembly’s approval of numerous bills, establishing 26 new universities, predominantly privately owned.

Before transitioning to the Senate for approval, these bills followed the National Assembly’s rapid approval on July 27, 2023. This was less than three weeks before the then-government handed over the reins to the caretaker setup.

Academics denounced the move as “ill-intentioned” and expressed apprehensions about compromised academic standards and benefits for the business entities behind the new universities.

A week after it was passed, a Senate panel on education said that it would conduct a thorough investigation before granting approval. It took only one more week and, on August 3, 2023, the Senate Standing Committee on Education approved the setting up of 19 of those 26 universities.

COSMETIC GAINS

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2022-23, the total number of universities in Pakistan stands at 247. It includes 147 public and 100 private universities, with up to two million students enrolled in various programmes.

Some universities in the country enjoy a reputable status nationally and globally, providing robust programmes across diverse disciplines. Nevertheless, challenges persist within the higher education system, encompassing concerns related to infrastructure, outdated curricula and the imperative for enhanced research productivity.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings evaluate universities globally on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The 2024 rankings include 1,906 universities, across 108 countries and regions. The University of Oxford maintains its position as the top-ranking institution for the eighth consecutive year, with Stanford University climbing to second place and Harvard University dropping to fourth.

The Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad is the sole Pakistani university on the list to rank among the top 500 institutions.

WHITHER VISION 2025

For successive governments, prioritising education has consistently ranked among the top concerns, at least on paper. The initiation of the ‘Pakistan Vision 2025’ in 2014 marked a significant step, introducing a comprehensive national strategic plan.

Among its 25 objectives, the foremost priority revolves around the education sector. The overarching aim by 2025 is to elevate higher education enrolment from seven percent to 12 percent, accompanied by a surge in the number of PhD scholars from 7,000 to 15,000.

In 2020, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) launched a policy, encouraging local universities to establish international campuses, aiming to enhance their global reputation and extend their educational programmes to the international market.

Nevertheless, in the fiscal year 2023-24, the government earmarked only around two percent of the Public Sector Development Programme in the federal budget for initiatives related to education to meet such an ambitious goal.

Within this allocation, the HEC was granted Rs59.7 billion, or roughly USD 220 million. In comparison, Stanford alone has a budget of $8.9 billion for this year, while an average American university’s expenditure is several times the size of the total budget of the HEC.

EQUITY AND EXCELLENCE

Pakistan must prioritise quality over quantity in its higher education system, drawing inspiration from successful models.

It can take its cues from countries such as the United States, with its focus on research and innovation, or the United Kingdom, which is known for high academic

standards and rigorous quality assurance. Germany is notable for being tuition-free or providing low-cost education, Canada has a reputation for academic excellence and diversity, and the Netherlands offers English-taught programmes.

Moreover, Pakistan’s higher education system must acknowledge the wide-ranging societal and individual advantages associated with higher education. To ensure social justice and economic efficiency, inclusive access and success are imperative.

Against this backdrop, the HEC needs to reassess its equity promotion policies, drawing insights from global experiences to enhance effectiveness. This requires an initial review of definitions related to underrepresented groups in higher education, termed “equity target groups”, with a focus on scrutinising disparities across regions and religions.

The evaluation should also prioritise assessing the distinction between financial aid programmes (grants) and non-monetary interventions (such as outreach, affirmative action, specialised institutions, etc) to actively eliminate barriers for students from under-represented backgrounds.

DIVERSITY and INCLUSION

It warrants mention that, since the inception of Pakistan, church-run educational institutions in Pakistan, including renowned establishments such as the Forman Christian College, Gordon College and the Kinnaird College for Women, along with various convent schools and church schools, have maintained high academic standards and enjoy widespread popularity.

This enduring acclaim is a direct result of the consistently high standards of education they provide. Nevertheless, according to a recent research by a church-supported not-for-profit, the Pakistan Partnership Initiative, a mere two percent of Christian students can access higher education.

The predominant obstacles hindering enrolment in universities and professional colleges include limited financial resources, insufficient scholarship opportunities, the absence and non-compliance of quotas for religious minorities, subpar academic performance, and subtle yet pervasive discrimination based on religious diversity. These factors collectively act as negative forces, contributing to complexities in the lives of Christian youth.

The situation demands specific measures to promote diversity and inclusion in higher education, acknowledging their crucial role in the overall success and prosperity of academic institutions. This goes beyond mere demographic representation and necessitates the creation of an environment that values and honours individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

It is not challenging to understand why researchers graduating from universities under the HEC have not only been overlooking the contributions of religious minorities in the education sector, but also exhibiting a mindset that well-known feminists exclusively possess Muslim backgrounds in this country.

The writer is a leadership consultant and a visiting fellow at Stanford University. She is a former member of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California in USA.
X: @RubinaFBhatti

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2024

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