As a consequence of several new bills approved by the Sindh Assembly and ensuing administrative arrangements, control and operation of many sub sectors of higher secondary and higher education have now passed on to the chief minister or the provincial government. After devolution, now there is a Sindh Higher Education Commission, an Inter-Board Committee of Chairmen (of provincial education boards) and many other bodies. A basic expectation that every stakeholder is justified to possess is enhancement in service delivery, efficiency and performance. The indicators have been dull on this count so far. Let us review the affairs of universities and colleges.
Every public sector university in the province, like elsewhere in the country, is governed by its specific law. There are statutes, regulations and rules that are derived by the relevant bodies including university senate, syndicates, academic councils, faculty and departmental boards to run the respective institution. Sufficient freedom is enshrined in this legal and administrative arrangement to enable universities manages their affairs in an autonomous manner.
Governor used to appoint a vice chancellor through a search committee and did not interfere in the day-to-day functioning. Now the chief minister also has a decisive role to play in such appointments. It is hoped that the sanctity of university managements shall be kept in the new dispensation whenever enforced. It will be appropriate if the provincial bureaucracy does not alter the university administration in order to safeguard academic independence.
Maintaining academic peace and a facilitating environment is a vital pre-requisite for functioning of a university. It is alleged that various pressure groups disguised as students create unrest in campuses. The student wings of various political parties are often blamed in this respect.
Now that the chief minister has become the key governing functionary, an enormous responsibility will lie upon his shoulders to keep campuses free from violence, arms, ammunition and de-facto bullies. Whereas student unions constitute a healthy platform for nurturing public spirit and understanding of politics, spread and use of arms for settling political disputes must be prevented at all costs.
In the current wave of devolution after the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the functions of Higher Education Commission are expected to be devolved to provinces. Apart from maintaining and raising academic standards, funding of universities remains a crucial matter. It is observed that allocations for research, postgraduate scholarships and development have been curtailed in the federal budget. No further funding is expected from any ancillary sources. To bolster the confidence of academic community, Sindh government would do well if it launches a higher education support fund to facilitate these worthwhile pursuits. It shall also stop brain drain and help in obtaining services of highly qualified Pakistani academics to come and serve under favourable arrangements.
Higher secondary education, imparted through intermediate colleges, is a short stretched level that spans two academic years. However, it is also the defining moment for a sizable number of pupils as it makes or breaks their career paths. The scores at this level are the principal factor that decide the eligibility and merit ranking for higher education institutions. For the less privileged lads and lasses, the predicament is even more acute as the choices are very few. In majority of the cases, seeking placement in a public sector institution is the only option. In the pyramidal hierarchy of educational opportunities, the numerical strength of students gradually decline for each upward tier. Thus students make all-out effort to be successful in obtaining admission in professional institutions or at least in a general university. This overwhelming pressure forces the students to resort to all available means to attain the desired level of marks.
One finds a thriving business of tuition centres, coaching classes and private tutors that “guarantee” high grades for their clients. These outlets extend training grounds for mastering examination tricks and techniques to score. Objective of education is simply set aside in this shady enterprise. How will the Sindh government regulate this process remains a test case.
During yester years, the students of HSC used to enjoy a full academic life during their two-year stay in the college. The college faculty used to take pride in their work despite very meager salaries. Time management, diligence and performance monitoring were some of the common approaches adopted by teachers to impart knowledge of acceptable merit. Weak or financially deprived students were given extra attention after the normal instruction hours.
Private tuitions or coaching were non-existent entities. The boys (or girls) common room was the space often utilised for group study by students themselves. College teachers would also drop in for any kind of advice in case of need. The peers used to organise extra-curricular activities with rigour and enthusiasm. Sports, quiz/general knowledge competitions, poetry recitals, cultural events, participation in Radio Pakistan’s student programmes and literary activities would nurture the young minds with the appropriate exposure to transform them into cultured and creative personalities.
Many of our noted writers, poets, dramatists, performing arts wizards and even singers owe their success to the fertile milieu of respective colleges. It is sad to note that the same institutions have apparently become barren without the creation of an alternative space.
Colleges have lost pupils to coaching centres by design, not in default. The low quality of education creates a service demand to be satisfied by coaching centres. A professor who would not ordinarily take his class in the college can be found most punctual and enthusiastic to deliver to his highly paying clientele. It is also reported that many teachers deliberately keep low teaching standards in the colleges in order to promote the demand of private tuition centres. Students slowly lose their interest in taking classes and can be routinely spotted wasting their time in college canteens, common rooms or isolated corners.
The ultimate losers in this state of affairs are the students from low and lower middle income groups who cannot afford private tuitions or coaching centres. Their only option is the college which has very little to offer. For this perpetual handicap, the chances of the underprivileged children to enter institutions of higher learning are greatly eclipsed. An average student from affluent background usually makes it to a good university through crutches of tuition while similar cases from lower income background are denied this option. In other words, poor attainment opportunities at the college level perpetuates the status quo against the downtrodden.
Past two decades have seen a periodic rise in the influence of political groups in colleges, even at the intermediate level. A peep into boys’ common rooms reveals the clandestine takeover of student affairs by the planted agents of dominant student wings of major political parties. The college managements, in some cases, also enter into marriages of mutual convenience for promoting their agenda in a trade union like style. Efforts of innovation and uplift are frustrated at the very onset by the joint fronts enacted by the collusion of the two cadres.
Recently, the move by a non-governmental organisation to acquire the management of some government educational institutions was sabotaged by the connivance of the respective college managements and members of a fanatic religio-political group. Spineless provincial administration went back on their decision, sealing the fate of hundreds of pupils who lost access to quality education.
A great deal has been said about the examination boards of the province. Across the myriad of problems, lack of transparency in the management and conduct of examination is the core issue. This can be fixed through simple but tough decisions.