Battles we’ve lost on our campuses- Ghazi Salahuddin

There was a time when we tended to be self-righteously offended by any shockingly negative assessment of Pakistan. We looked at those assessments as biased or conspiratorial. Gradually, though, damning indictments of what we have made of our country are becoming hard to challenge in the face of a reality that is too glaring to disregard. Now, we have a fair supply of apocalyptic scenarios that are totally home-grown. Any one headline, whether it relates to the ‘war on terror’, the foreign currency market or the cost of living, can push us into a state of depression.

In these circumstances, not much notice was taken of a despatch from Washington, published on Thursday, that portrays Pakistan being “on the edge”. And this is the assessment of 16 US intelligence agencies including the CIA and the FBI. This observation is part of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to be presented to the US administration and lawmakers later this month and the McClatchy newspapers have revealed the contents of the NIE draft.

Anyhow, US intelligence officials who have prepared the NIE have said that increased violence, massive energy and food shortages and political instability threaten to destabilise Pakistan. The draft describes the situation in America’s key ally in the ‘war on terror’ as “very bad” and “very bleak”. There is considerable focus, of course, on the “intensifying” Islamist insurgency in FATA.

Ah, but this NIE assessment is not the focus of this column. I have only referred to it to highlight the perspective in which we need to comprehend our present state of affairs and try to make some sense of the main causes of our apparent loss of a sense of direction. In fact, more appropriate would be a reference to the Global Competitive Report 2008-2009 of the World Economic Forum, released this week.

What does this report say? Well, it puts Pakistan at 101 out of 134 global economies in terms of competitiveness. The rankings have been calculated from both publicly available data and the Executive Opinion Survey conducted annually by the World Economic Forum. India, in this table, stands at 50. Sri Lanka is well ahead of us, at number 77. But Bangladesh is left behind, at 111. Fortunately, we are not at the very bottom because there are so many African countries in the list – and Chad is at 134.

What I particularly noticed is that Pakistan fares even worse – it is 123rd – in the specific category of higher education and training. Since this report takes into account the latest situation, one wonders what the great hullabaloo about revolutionising the higher education by the Musharraf regime has finally yielded. Obviously, our competitiveness in any area should have a lot to do with the quality of the manpower produced by our institutions of higher learning.

We do have a few – four or five, perhaps – centres of excellence but in the sixth largest country of the world in terms of population, the state of the public universities is really pathetic. It is this shortcoming that I sometimes think is the most eloquent expression of our intellectual and cultural deprivations. Indeed, it is astonishing that our universities have not made any significant contribution to the generation of new ideas and promotion of creativity when campuses are universally regarded as nurseries for invention and enterprise.

But let us look at the consequence of the massive investment in higher education during the past eight years. This reminds me of a Rauf Klasra report published in this newspaper on Tuesday. Its intro: “Former minister Ishaq Khan Khakwani on Monday blasted the outgoing chairman Higher Education Commission, Dr Attaur Rahman, for what he termed the massive misuse of billions of rupees during his eight years in office”. There was also a demand for a special audit of the HEC accounts.

Now, I am not concerned here with any alleged financial irregularities. The point simply is that billions were at the disposal of HEC. Khakwani mentioned the surprisingly high figure of Rs26 billion. There must surely have been plans and promises and a certain strategy to raise the standards of education and the quality of human material coming out of the universities. Possibly, there may have been some gains.

Still, the overall impact should have manifested itself by now. The tragedy here is that in almost all sectors, we grieve for paucity of funds and there is always this argument about what percentage of the GNP is allocated for health or education. However, here is more evidence that financial resources alone, though always in short supply, do not always bear fruit.

One excuse may be that it is too early to make a final judgment about Dr Rahman’s or HEC’s performance. This should be untenable because eight years is a long time. With proper effort, initiative and will, the world can change in less time. Our successive governments have been unable to provide mass literacy when socialist countries like Cuba were able to achieve this goal in just a few years. Besides, it can be argued that primary education is more important than higher education, particularly in respect of the government’s basic responsibilities.

We have the example of such Far Eastern countries as South Korea that invested heavily in primary education, particularly in education of girls, in their times of trouble. Everything else could later fall into place. Incidentally, one reason why the war against religious militancy is our war is that the Taliban are bombing girls’ school in Swat and they have already destroyed more than 140 schools.

Our rulers, alas, do not seem to be concerned about these things. But this is evidently a suicidal approach. That famous quotation that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” is profound in its message. Ultimately, the quality of human beings that our educational system produces will determine our place in the world. Education, certainly, should be taken in its wider sense, including the character and social virtues of our graduates.

And this brings me back to the issue I had raised at the outset. We must be mindful of the rankings we are assigned in the area of social and human development. I will need to write another column to illustrate the environment we have on our campuses. You should have read a number of news stories about violence on our campuses, the latest incidents being reported from Quetta. Every now and then, one meets a degree-holder from a major university who is not worthy of even a school-leaving certificate. It is really very, very depressing. Can we also borrow, from the United States or China, some social and intellectual capital to be able to survive as a nation?

The writer is a staff member.



Source: The News, 19/10/2008

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