During the past five years, one has seldom come across some good reporting on Pakistan. The media has been fixated on child abuse, corruption, judicial activism, riggings, and sit-ins. The government has tried to sell CPEC, metro bus, and orang-line projects, but a lack of transparency in these matters has weakened its case. TV channels and newspapers are mostly silent on positive developments that at least a couple of institutions have shown.
Two such organisations are the Pakistan Academy of Letters and the Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU). Dr Qasim Bhugio is leading the Academy and Dr Shahid Siddiqui is at the helm of AIOU. Leaving the recent achievements and excellent work of the Academy to another time, in this article we discuss the outstanding performance the AIOU has displayed since 2014; credit should be given where the credit is due.
The AIOU is not like any other university in Pakistan. It was the brainchild of Z A Bhutto who established it in 1974 as the first open university not only in Pakistan but also in Asia. Now it is the largest university in the country in terms of enrollment that has crossed the 1.3m mark. Normally, other universities do have considerations of age and domicile while granting admissions to students, but not the AIOU; here anybody can acquire education irrespective of their age bracket and origin. Students can learn at their own pace, without leaving their jobs.
In terms of outreach, no other university can match it; with almost four dozen regional offices and over 1200 study centres across Pakistan, the AIOU operates almost a thousand examination centres. Moreover which university can claim to have over 9,000 part-time tutors? Of course, the quality of tutors and their teaching is not equally good across all disciplines and locations, but we will come to that later. Perhaps the best part of the outreach is the ability and willingness of the AIOU to facilitate Pakistani students living abroad especially in the Middle East.
Many other Open universities in the world run distance learning programme without having a face-to-face component. The AIOU is one of those that offer a substantial face-to-face interaction, particularly in the faculty of sciences. Since Dr Shahid Siddiqui himself specialises in education, during the past three years he has led the expansion of online digital material, and also focused on the development of not only books but also allied materials such as CDs, DVDs, and radio and TV programmes. Another recent development is the availability of workshops, internships, and face-to-face teaching practicum at all levels.
As a student of education management, during a recent visit this writer was particularly impressed by the rapid expansion the faculty of education and the faculty of social sciences and humanities have shown. Collectively, education and social science faculties boast 25 departments, some of which have recently been added. In this era of disproportionate stress on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) most universities in Pakistan are focusing on STEM at the cost of education, humanities, and social sciences. Just look at the names of degree-awarding institutions (DAIs) both in private and public sectors; in most cases you will find institutes or universities highlighting engineering, science, and technology.
In this bleak scenario, the faculty of education at the AIOU offers specialisations in education planning and management, early childhood education, elementary teacher education, distance and non-formal learning, continuing education, science education, secondary teacher education, and to top it all in special education that is not offered at many universities in Pakistan. Since the education of special children is a neglected area in the country, the efforts being made at the AIOU are commendable. Similarly, education planning and management is another almost neglected field but not at the AIOU, where you find graduate and post-graduate students discussing, researching, and writing about educational management issues in Pakistan.
During the past three years most curricula and textbooks have been revised for all departments to include the latest developments and research in their respective fields in the 21st century. As a keen observer of educational material being developed and used in Pakistan, one can vouch that if you compare the curricula and textbooks of just five years back at the AIOU with material and books being given to and used by students and teachers now, you will feel a pleasant surprise about how in a short period of just three years things can improve.
In most universities in Pakistan, their libraries remain closed on weekends, and the same was the case with AIOU, not anymore. The central library that used to close at 4pm every day, now remains open till 7pm and that too seven days a week. Not many universities in the country offer research theses online; AIOU has started doing that even for visually impaired readers with new software that reads the documents for them. In terms of research the number of research journals that was nil in 2013 and 2014, became seven in 2015, ten in 2016, and seventeen in 2017.
Though the university had four research journals but no issue was published in 2013 and 2014, which shows how dynamic leadership can change the research culture so quickly, and that too without compromising on quality, as a review of the recently published journals demonstrated. A comparison of research conferences shows that there was only one conference at the AIOU in 2014 that gradually rose to 14 conferences in 2017. Similarly, the number of research publications by AIOU jumped from 96 in 2014 to 185 in 2016; a no mean feat. Twenty-six new academic programmes have been developed during the past three years at the AIOU.
The three new departments that saw light of the day include the departments of politics and international relations, translations studies, and psychology. All these achievements show a clear commitment and the sincere efforts that are being made at the AIOU. When right choices are made in appointments and promotions; there are exceptional professionals in Pakistan who can sacrifice higher paid jobs abroad to contribute to the development in this country. We have seen that if wrong choices are made in the Higher Education Commission, DAIs, and even at college and school levels, the standard of education declines fast.
This year, around two dozen public sector universities will need to replace their vice-chancellors. There is a need to draw a sound mechanism to make these appointments. Education in Pakistan has suffered a lot mainly because the top positions were occupied by wrong people; for example General Pervez Musharraf entrusted the federal education ministry to Lt General Javed Ashraf Qazi who played havoc with education by his arbitrary decisions and an obsession with establishing cadet colleges in every district. One hopes that in the remaining months of the present government, right appointments are made at least in the education sector that is the mother of all other sectors.