Imparting education to its citizens is an enterprise which has received scant attention by those managing the Pakistani state. The consequence of the state’s shirking of this obligation is obvious. Chaos, confusion and religious extremism are gnawing the social fabric of the country.
Not only the overall state of education, but also the institutions intended to provide instruction have progressively declined. No one seems bothered about reforming a system which is fast being displaced by a combination of private entrepreneurs and regressive madrassas. Ironically, the dwindling state of public instruction is matched by the social influence and political clout that the madrassa networks have come to enjoy, as suggested by Masooda Bano’s recently-published study on the religious seminaries in some Muslim polities.
The national narrative reverberates a sensibility primarily produced and punctuated by the madrassa networks. In the absence of a viable public school system, private school chains have come up as the principal service providers. Those who can afford to do so send their children to these schools. Those with limited means are forced to content themselves with either government-run schools or madrassas. Thus the most important objective that education is meant to accrue for the general masses — the possibility of upward social mobility — does not materialise if the education system remains as dysfunctional as it is right now in Pakistan.
The state of university education is even worse, with only a handful of privately-run universities holding out some promise and hope to the middle/upper-middle echelons of society.
Cognisant of the precarious state of the university education, the Punjab government has conceived an ambitious plan to construct a multi-billion-rupee ‘Knowledge City’ project in Lahore. It appears to be a scheme that will emulate the same sort of a project that exists in Doha, Qatar.
The Punjab government, according to their hand-out, wants big universities like Cambridge, Oxford or Princeton to open satellite campuses in this new Knowledge City.
The most important component of the project is the establishment of the Science Parks on the pattern of Cambridge University. In his recent visit to UK, Shahbaz Sharif, through the Pakistani High Commission, reached out to the UK academics in order to consider the details of such a project. I was also asked by the High Commission to go to the Churchill Hotel, London where a meeting was scheduled with some academics equipped with the necessary experience which may come in handy for that mega project.
A handout distributed among the prospective participants also mentioned the government’s desire to set up a nexus between industry and the scientific research institutes as another priority that the Punjab government has set before itself. For that purpose it needs a useful human resource in order to achieve their stated objectives.
Keeping in mind these aspirations, articulated through the handout, I contacted Dr Safwan Akram, a gifted young scientist of extraordinary merit, and convinced him to come to the meeting. He holds a PhD in Analytical Biotechnology from Cambridge University. Published in top-ranking journals like Nature and Lab on a Chip with almost two years of Post-Doc experience at Cambridge University, Dr Safwan Akram’s expertise and zeal can be harnessed by the Punjab government.
Further, he has studied quite diligently the evolutions of the Science Parks of the Universities of Cambridge and Alberta. I thought he was ideally suited to the task at hand.
As oblivious as I am of the working of the Pakistani state officials, and imbued with enthusiasm and zest, Akram travelled to London, but there we were fed with speeches and blank responses of the members of the chief minister’s entourage. I think our expectations were a bit too high, so perhaps the fault was ours. The redeeming thing was Shahbaz Sharif’s gift of the gab. His speech was the most impressive and he said all the right things.
Besides Akram, Tayyab Safdar, an extremely perceptive young man, at the final stage of his PhD at the Department of Development Studies, University of Cambridge, was also a part of the meeting. He is studying the sugarcane industry in the Punjab. His research can certainly provide a fresh insight into the challenges that the sugar industry is facing. The young scholars are truly an asset for Pakistan and they should be treated as such. Now is the time that young people from academia ought to be inducted in policy-making.
More crucial than anything else are the issues regarding security. Despite the assurances made by Shahbaz Sharif, and given the prevalent situation, security-related concerns are not likely to go away in the immediate future. The Pakistani state will have to formulate a new national narrative that reflects the eclectic nature of its socio-cultural ethos. That indeed is a daunting task, needing both patience and perseverance.
The Pakistan government has no option but to revitalise the social sciences and humanities. For the realisation of such an ambitious project as a ‘Knowledge City’, big investment is required in such disciplines, so that a new national narrative is established, whereby the paranoia about the western world is done away with.
Any new beginning in the realm of education can only be made through invigorating the social sciences. Development by investing heavy sums in science and technology is tenable only when the state is out of existential danger.