There is a great need to cultivate a culture of learning in our academia through a bold and effective policy framework that is based on integrity, accountability, merit and the celebration of scholarly achievement.
The academia in Pakistan is dead. We may have more colleges and universities today, and still more are in the pipeline, and they may throw out bigger numbers of graduates, but none of this gives us the essence of higher education, or what it means.
Higher education is about learning by raising critical questions, engaging in open debate and discussion with tolerance, and dedicating faculty and resources to high quality research in humanities and the sciences. The academia is both a consumer as well as a producer of knowledge. These functions are interlinked; the absence of one will leave the other unfulfilled.
One may have other objectives and standards to evaluate the state of education in any society, but in my view the attributes I have assigned to academia are universally accepted as the bare minimum. There is a consensus among Pakistani academicians that our public universities are worse than they were thirty years ago. The steep decline has been constant, and none of the regimes or their education policies has ever succeeded in stemming the rot.
There is an education emergency in Pakistan at all tiers of our educational system, from elementary school to the university. As our new elected government thinks about national issues and formulates its vision about a new Pakistan, the issue that must dominate their thinking is the state of education.
Let me start this series on education with the academia, where I have had the fortune of spending thirty-five years at three major universities — two public and one private, endowed and charitable. I am highly disappointed by how successive regimes have handled higher education in the country. This disappointment is widely shared by all who have taught in Pakistani universities or have closely observed their decline.
So what went wrong?
The foremost reason for the death of academia is loss of the culture of learning. We had a native culture of learning, and while the British disrupted our natural cultural evolution, they did create modern educational institutions, and were supplemented by Muslim reformers. The classical tradition they brought was essentially rooted in philosophical scepticism, questioning the established truth.
One of the essential features of learning is the development of critical thinking among students. In Pakistan, however, it is largely about brainwashing or seeking blind conformation to our preferred values. Because of heavy doses of ideology and dogma, and the fact that a vast majority of our faculties have been trained and socialised in the conformist tradition, we have reduced learning to regurgitation.
The real objective of modern education is to develop individuals with the ability to think clearly, individuals who are rooted in their own culture in a wider sense while maintaining a rational and cosmopolitan outlook. The academia is as much about preserving historical memory, explaining social evolution, promoting arts, culture and science as it is about helping meet the future material needs of society. These purposes cannot be dismissed as lofty or idealistic; they form the core values of international academia and they are at the heart of any modern and progressive educational system.
Another reason for the death of our academia is that learning and scholastic pursuits are not valued by our society as compared to acquiring power, traditional authority, wealth and influence, which are placed higher in the ranking of social values. One thing that separates the modern world from pre-modern feudalistic culture is the respect for the learned and the teacher. The academician at a Pakistani university has always been at the receiving end of power and has got poor allocation of social and material values. I wonder how a struggling, demoralised and alienated academia could compete in the production of knowledge or match the scholarly output of universities in comparable developing or Muslim countries.
I am purposefully evading the question of material rewards and resources, which are commonly cited as one of the major causes of our academic decline. While they are essential, flow of monetary resources by itself is not a guarantee of rising standards and world-class graduates.
Unless we revive the culture of learning, increased resources pumped into the academia would be a great waste, as is evident over the past eight years. There are more resources available now to public universities than in the previous decades, but the progress in improving teaching standards and research continues to be patchy, inconsistent and inadequate.
One thing that is generally pushed under the rug and doesn’t figure well in the debate on higher education is the question of merit and integrity within the academia itself. We have not engaged in self-critique at all. A culture of learning cannot flourish without integrity and merit, which are sadly absent in the Pakistani academia. Faculty recruitment is not rigorous enough and, often, factors of ideological affinity, political connections and patronage of senior faculty have helped induct individuals with poor intellectual endowment and questionable academic credentials.
Over time, independent-minded, intellectually vibrant and dedicated scholars have been reduced to an ineffectual minority in public universities, while incompetent, politically active and unionised teachers continue to call the shots and shape the agenda of their respective universities. Even the best possible vice chancellor would fail at innovation or the introduction of values of integrity, merit and accountability; the survival instincts of vice chancellors force them to compromise with noisy, disruptive faculty and they often fail to positively alter the environment of their institutions.
Reforming the Pakistani academia is a big challenge for all of us, not just the new government. It will require collective thinking, consistent efforts and a radical reformist mindset. Mere tinkering with the system will not do. We have allowed enough time and space to self-designated, demagogic visionaries and reformers; we must not allow that to happen any more and address the core issue of cultivating a culture of learning in our academia through a bold and effective policy framework that is based on integrity, accountability, merit and the celebration of scholarly achievement.
Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article is the first in a series examining the education system of Pakistan
Courtesy: Daily Times, 20/5/2008