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Pakistan has only five per cent of tertiary enrolment, which is only comparable to sub Saharan Africa and when people say that we have so many universities here, it is factually incorrect, says the CEO of Habib University Foundation (HUF), Wasif Rizvi.

In a candid discussion on all that ails Pakistan’s education system, particularly the higher education system, Rizvi was hopeful that things can change in Pakistan “if there is investment in the education sector and rationality is given importance.”

Heading the upcoming Habib University, which is a project of a leading Pakistani banking and finance institution and will open doors to students in 2014, he says that there are not enough universities in Pakistan.

This statement might strike one as shocking given the mushroom growth of universities but it rings true given the fact that most of these institutions are no more than “degree-awarding facilities”. Not surprising though, in a country where the prevalent mindset about education is that of “an investment that will lead to a job”, it is no wonder that so many universities are now focusing on churning out “clones” that are trained to do a job rather than thinking individuals with the ability to innovate.

“We rank 124 out of the 144 countries in the world in tertiary education. Any country that has a 100 million people is ranked significantly above us in the list. Take a look at Mexico or Indonesia or Iran, even Egypt. These countries have invested quite a lot in high quality education, particularly at the higher level. This is very crucial to any country’s success, be it economic or social progress. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not paid any attention to this side at all and there is almost zero research that comes out of here. The same goes for any noteworthy publications,” he commented.

Mr Rizvi was accompanied by the Dean and CEO of Texas A&M University at Qatar, Mark E. Weichold, who was in Pakistan recently. Earlier, in 2010, Texas A&M at Qatar signed an agreement with HUF to share and collaborate educational experiences. In a bid to change the educational landscape of Pakistan, the HUF aims to provide quality education that is up to the standard offered in top American universities and at the same time produce well-rounded individuals who will have a positive impact on society.

Given that the fields of Liberal Arts and Humanities remain on the backburner and are hardly the first choice of many students and parents in Pakistan, Rizvi commented that this has negative implications on society.

Commenting on the state of education, Rizvi said, “It is sad that creative thinking and critical thinking are not encouraged in Pakistan and as a result students are unable to achieve their maximum potential. We need to change this in the country and it would be a good start. We hope to follow the model that is available in US universities where they follow a general education model.”

He went on to add that Pakistan did have a reasonable education model during the 1950s and the ’60s. “But it was dismantled and converted into the specialised model with prime focus on Medicine and Engineering. It is a good sign that some universities are now trying to break free from this. LUMS has made an effort in this regard,” he added.

Agreeing with Rizvi’s views, Weichold said, “The narrowness of higher education in Pakistan is not unique. I have seen the same thing happening in other countries as well. The focus is more towards training rather than educating,” he said.

The downside of this practice is that while a university will produce accountants or engineers, “somehow the broader, more liberal education is being increasingly lost,” Weichold commented.

Giving an example of Qatar and the education system there, he said that initially people were apprehensive with the idea of an American university setting up a campus in a country with different values.

“However, the assumptions weren’t proved wrong. I saw change happen. The way the confidence of students soared during the first year is remarkable. Their abilities to think question and be more in touch with their surroundings is what improved,” he said.

However, Weichold adds, “This is not easy. The institution has to be persuasive about it. A course in critical thinking will never do it.”

“There is nothing inherently or biologically wrong with Pakistanis,” quipped Rizvi, as he commented on the perceived lack of rationality and logic. “If an education institution creates an environment that is very challenging and pushes one to be diligent while giving a different student life experience, than people in the country will come around to the idea of critical thinking. Young people respond very well to it.”