In the past about 18 years, universities have mushroomed in Pakistan. Does the increase in numbers reflect improved quality too? Are universities really universities in Pakistan? Has the HEC established by Gen. Musharraf to improve the quality of higher education done its job? If you think yes, there is no need to read any further. However, if your answer to the above questions is negative, then read on for at least one perspective on why?
There is a basic flaw in our understanding of the institution called university and higher education. This flaw is in almost all aspects of the characteristics/requirements that make an educational institution a university.
A university is an autonomous institution of disseminating and creating knowledge, of teaching and research. This combination distinguishes it from colleges, which are concerned with teaching only and from research institutions, which are only engaged in specific areas of research. Their autonomy in deciding what to teach, how to teach and to organise, prioritise and systematise research is vital for discharging its functions with quality. University is a space where ideas are born or taken from the society, debated, researched, developed, and given some practical shape for the larger society to act on. Autonomy creates the space for these functions.
Autonomy does not mean having no connection with the state and society or being beyond the law of the land. Universities must function in accordance with law of the land and must be held responsible for what they are expected to do. Also any wrongdoing must be dealt with according to law. Autonomy means managing the substance and content of taught courses as well as research. It means creating benchmarks for quality of these functions.
Standard setting, which remains with the federal government after the 18th Constitutional Amendment, must be interpreted limitedly, to just determining the minimum number of credit hours for a particular degree. What is taught in those hours, how and by who is the job of each individual university? This is not even the job of the provinces, to which the 18th Amendment gives authority for managing education. The provinces should let each university within its jurisdiction decide on such matter.
Decision on the content of curriculum or specific subjects within a particular programme is not the job of federal or provincial governments. There is no need for uniformity. In developed world, universities within the same city also have different curriculum. Variety creates space for innovation, improvement and quality.
The role of HEC or in case where its functions have been devolved to provinces is to strengthen and support universities, not micro-manage them. The current micro management of universities by the HEC is killing the spirit of research and innovation thus degrading the quality of the end product, whether degree programmes or published research. It stifles and limits the autonomous space, a basic requirement for creativity, for an institution to be a university.
The HEC’s practice of asserting a decisive role in curriculum design, publications, research supervision and appointments (Tenure Track) has to go. Its role in scholarships, remuneration also must end. The HEC’s function as an attesting body has absolutely no justification. At most, federal or provincial HECs can organise training programmes for younger faculty on curriculum designing, research methodology and supervision. These structures can also have accreditation system for universities and specific degree programmes.
Universities must be encouraged to establish real life contact with the state and society.
Finances are at the bottom of all activities and so they are vital for a university too. Universities can never earn enough money on their own to sustain. Let me quickly add, the reference is to general universities that run programmes in almost all subjects. Specialised universities focusing on business studies, medicine or engineering are mostly self sustaining at the minimum, if not making profit. Departments of Politics, Philosophy, Mathematics, Sociology, Archeology, History and Languages will rarely be self-sustaining. Even Departments of Physics or Chemistry for that matter will rarely make money, especially in a developing economy with a small industrial base. However, the society needs these subjects.
A university will always need outside funding, from government in case of state-owned universities, fundraising, consultancy services and fees. Private general purpose universities in developed countries mostly have big endowment funds, in addition to fees and consultancies/projects etc. Most private universities in Pakistan focus on moneymaking programmes like Business Studies, Engineering, Computer Science and Law. Though some have started programmes in subjects that are not making much money, but give the university a better look and also improve the quality of academics.
Tuition fee has to be subsidised, more so in a poor country like ours. Even in developed states, more than 90 per cent of the tuition fees are paid through social welfare systems, even while being directly subsidised by the government.
The four-year bachelor’s programme, though a progressive step, has created more confusion than adding to the quality of education. The fault is not in the programme; it is in the method of implementation. The simultaneous continuation of two-year BA programme is creating confusion. Where it has been implemented, you don’t get admission in bachelor’s programme and then gradually narrow down to a particular field to major in, as originally envisaged, but from day one you are admitted for a specific degree.
There is a lot of overlapping of subjects that results in the same course being taught at many departments separately, thus wasting time and resources, both human and material. State must invest in starting the four-year programme at college level. The need for MA programme will be decreased, as the four-year bachelor’s should be enough for most jobs. The masters programme and higher research degrees should be encouraged to be pursued by those interested in research-based careers (though by no means restricted to them).
To make a real change for the better, there is a need to strengthen autonomy of universities. The state must always be partially funding universities, but universities must innovatively look into meeting part of the cost. The HEC, federal or provincial, needs to be limited. The function of a university as an institution where knowledge is created and disseminated must underwrite Higher Education Policy. Gradually, measurement of quality should be detached from quantity. It must be remembered, quality can neither be legislated nor ordered. However, environment for quality can be legislated and created.