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Do academics even matter?

Universities to be run by VCs, syndicates and senates

Do academics even matter?

Do academics at all matter in the milieu that we inhabit? A cursory observation of the objective conditions will yield an answer in the negative. The noticeable decrease in the number of people occupied with reading books is the social reality that one can neither ignore nor feel comfortable with. The cultivation and development of a reading habit among the citizens of any state plays a pivotal role in the social evolution of nations. It acts as an antidote to regressive and reactionary trends, which, as we witness, have taken over our society.

Most of the students I see, instead of reading the actual text(s), resort to relying on the copy-and-pasted material available in the form of guidebooks available in the market, and notes prepared by their seniors. This trend has persisted for quite some time. Some of the new trends, weaning young people away from spending quality time in the company of books, have unsettling effects that disturb those of us who actually care for this nation’s future.

This fascination of hiring people working abroad as technocrats seems to be the ultimate solution available to all rulers in Pakistan. Asking these technocrats to come set things right for us is the apparently simplistic solution to all our ills.

One reason usually advanced for the prevalent nonchalance of the youth towards academics is the abundance of smart gadgets which has lured youngsters, almost 60 per cent of our population, away from actual reading of books. The import of technological goods, instead of transferring technological knowledge to the societies having little socio-cultural awareness, does not do much good to the impressionable youth there. Technological advancement in such societies as ours is completely devoid of the context of that particular technological progress. Therefore, one may argue that when such a product becomes an inalienable part of a youngster’s surroundings, it renders a terribly restrictive impact on him/her.

To put it more clearly, the youngster in question becomes a victim of cultural alienation simply because the gadget used by him/her is not the outcome of an indigenous process in creating that technology. Technology is generally produced in response to a social need. Thus, the newly emergent technology and the social reality interact and as a result complement each other.

Technological advancement in any socio-cultural formation gives rise to a new social phenomenon, needing fresh social analysis. In order to do that, vibrant and well-trained social scientists particularly among the university academics are needed. It has to be borne in mind that social scientists, like the luminaries in other branches of knowledge, can hardly function without the support of the government.

Another point worth our consideration is the role of social awareness. Social scientists tend to become doubly effective if the public has the requisite capacity to appreciate and imbibe the outcome of their academic endeavours. Sadly, policy makers are quite impervious to the role of social scientists in raising social awareness among the larger public as a whole. We unfortunately have very few social scientists and the number of literati has considerably shrunk and is shrinking further. In such a situation, the indifference of the general public towards the academia makes perfect sense. All said and done, the malaise has permeated very deep thus it is far too obvious for any conscious being to ignore.

Far more portentous is the creeping influence of this malaise inside the academic institutions, even in universities. There might be a couple of exceptions in the private sector, but the overall situation is very bleak. The mafias consisting of fake characters have established their stranglehold on the academia and the redeeming light is nowhere in sight.

The tendency to ignore academics, sadly, percolates from above. The increasing extent of interference from the authorities, clueless as ever about the demands of higher education, has vitiated the situation. Caught between the Higher Education Commission, Department(s) of Higher Education and Provincial Higher Education Commissions, universities seem to be stuck in a mire. What all these stakeholders lack are vision and a clear-cut strategy to realise that vision, if at all they have one.

An equally important and debilitating factor is the lack of clarity in action. All this confusion reflects ominously on the functioning of universities. The incentives, dangled before the academics at one point in time, have been withdrawn or curtailed. Things had started looking up for academics when Dr. Ata ur Rahman took over the charge of higher education. Despite what his detractors say, he gave university academics a sense of security and they began to feel empowered. However, disconcerting news is in circulation that University academics will be made to serve under administrators hired against hefty salaries, either from abroad or from within the country.

It is a myopic way of ostensibly improving the academic scenario. How will the academic institutions perform better merely by subjecting them to the will and whim of non-academics, hired on three times greater salary than professors, is an open question. In a ‘free’ country, only an academic has been and will be a colonised figure. If the state of affairs remains the way it is right now, none of the best students will opt to join the academia.

This fascination of hiring people working abroad as technocrats seems to be the ultimate solution available to all rulers in Pakistan. Asking these technocrats to come set things right for us is the apparently simplistic solution to all our ills. While extending them this invitation, no consideration is given to the fact that they have been working, and have succeeded, in a different structural environment. Bureaucratic snags of different kinds, a well-ingrained pattern of hierarchy, undue interference from those wielding power and political patronage are the usual impediments in Pakistani society that these individuals do not have to face abroad. Besides, most of these perceived ‘messiahs’ are not privy to the way the system works in Pakistan as well as the style of administration.

As a consequence, the likes of Nadeem ul Haq, despite vast experience with IMF and his training from the University of Chicago, could not change things for the better. The same can be said about the immensely revered physicist from the University of Cambridge, Prof. Haroon Ahmad. He spent some time in Islamabad but eventually had to return to Cambridge exasperated.

In view of these facts, what is recommended is that universities should be run only by their VCs, syndicates and senates. However, the process through which these individuals and bodies are selected should be made more rigorous and transparent. Only academics are entitled to run the universities because that’s how they are being run everywhere in the world.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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