While meeting a few important people, I was asked to comment on the dismal state of higher education in Pakistan. I was expected to particularly focus on the predicament of public sector universities. The intention was not to place anyone in a quandary, but sometimes the simplest of questions are the hardest to answer. Deliberating on the subject of inquiry, I went on to unravel the problem in a circumspect manner.
Any institution of higher learning, I said in my response, has to have three components which intersect and, as a consequence, produce an ‘academic sphere’. This constitutes the central theme of today’s article. The ‘academic sphere’ usually feeds into the Habermasian ‘public sphere’ thus infusing in it a necessary intellectual vitality and also connecting academics and their research with the broader society.
I was then asked to expound on these components, and the effects that the interplay of these components cast on the society at large. The conversation thereafter took a serious and complicated turn, which I hardly expected. This was probably because of a general indifference to discussion of serious matters over the years.
Coming back to the point, I tried to respond to the query and it is the content of this response which I intend to share with the readers.
There are three components that, to my reckoning, are essential to the educational structure of any institution, and, more specifically, universities where the dissemination of knowledge, production of knowledge, and the instruction of the senior segment of a body of students work as pillars. Together they form the academic sphere which keeps re-discovering itself through the production of new knowledge, but also contributes to the society by bringing about a cultural enhancement and social mobility among general public.
In order to raise the standard of higher education, each one of these components requires a slightly different expertise. When taking the dissemination of knowledge into account, the training given to teachers is paramount. In our case, improvement in the methods of communication is particularly significant. The greatest worry in our education system is the lack of skilled teachers who are able to effectively communicate ideas to their students. In order to do this, modern methods of teaching require the use of modern technology in classrooms. The great irony is that, in most universities, such gadgetry cannot be used: first, because it is not available in these institutions and; second, because the overwhelming majority of university teachers are unable to use multi-media devices or projectors in the classrooms.
In most instances, teaching methods have remained stuck in the past, in the hackneyed ways of our predecessors, which obviously reflects badly on the general acceptability of our university graduates in the job market. Courses taught at these institutions are outdated and devoid of any profundity. So, the situation in terms of dissemination is dismal to say the least.
The second component is the production of knowledge which, in most cases, is the domain of academics linked with universities. In an era in which ‘knowledge economy’ is a buzz word, production of knowledge holds the key for the success of any nation or community. The exercise of producing knowledge must be a well-rounded venture which should cover social, cultural, economic and political aspects. But, currently, we seem to be completely lacking in academic rigour. Very few locally produced doctoral and masters dissertations can claim to be competitive with those that are produced in countries in the vanguard of academic endeavour.
In Pakistan, most research is conducted purely for the purpose of earning increments in salary or promotion. In most public sector universities, not a single book of international academic merit has been produced in the last ten years in the realms of humanities and social sciences. The complete lack of any well-organised archives, research centres or a well-stocked library is a great impediment in the ability to collect useful data, interrogate sources and produce useful research. Important journals are hard to come by and the books published by big international publishers reach Pakistan a few years after they are published.
The third component of instructing our young scholars to produce knowledge is inextricably linked with the second one. Scholars are supposed to produce knowledge at a local level, but are faced with a severe scarcity in proper inspiration, well-equipped resource centres and intellectually orientated teachers and supervisors. The research is not rigorous enough. The situation in terms of adopting a proper methodology and developing writing skills while carrying out research, particularly in the fields of social sciences and humanities, is very stark.
The Higher Education Commission undertook the praise-worthy initiative of sending students abroad for PhD to give them foreign exposure and also to hone their research skills, but it is clear that this is not yet yielding the desired results. HEC scholars go abroad and many of them come back with an attitude which implies they feel that they had been on a vacation.
My suggestion, as I once made in one of my earlier columns, is to reduce the number of academic institutions, all of whom claim that they currently exemplify academia par-excellence. I feel that this is the only way to spawn and create what I call an ‘academic sphere’. The need to create centres of excellence is greater than ever. We must aim for quality than for quantity.