Higher education and political interference

Universities are in a strong position to play a role in the economic development of the country, writes Mubashar Naqvi

Higher education and political interference
Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle observed that humans are political animals. In a more recent discussion, politics was defined as “who gets what, when, how.” If we apply this proposition to higher education in Pakistan, it is obvious that the education sector is highly political in the country and political interference is not new here. Higher Education in Pakistan has been suffering from political interventions for years, where little political engagement/affiliation or even appointments during past governments were considered as crimes. It is an unfortunate truth that in a country like ours, vice chancellors’ political affiliation matters far more than their academic standing or vision.

It has been about three years since the PTI formed government. The party came into power with a manifesto aiming to increase school participation, ensure a uniform education system across Pakistan and improve quality and enhance access and skills training. However, not a single significant achievement has been made by the ‘Tabdeeli Sarkar’ except the recent removal of HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri through an amended ordinance. As per this amended ordinance, the tenure of an HEC chairperson was reduced from four to two years, which clearly shows that education stands nowhere in the priorities of the present government.

The PTI had promised to establish well-connected educational networks and provide technical and vocational education programs with the generous financial support of the government. However, in reality, the government has failed to do this and has cut down the minuscule budget for higher education even further due to which all universities are suffering.

Many regional universities are providing students with the skills to compete in global workplaces and are major employers by boosting innovation in their surroundings and their very presence has a direct economic effect, as they are big purchasers of goods and services from the areas they are located in.

At an institutional level, universities are in a strong position to play a role in the economic development of the country; universities can increase the supply of skilled graduates who raise productivity in the firms they work in. They help produce graduates with critical thinking and innovation skills and they become employable in national and global job markets and offer vital services to their communities.

The World Bank study Globalization, Growth, and Poverty: Building an Inclusive World Economy, by David Dollar and Paul Collier, describes how 24 developing countries integrated into the global economy experienced higher economic growth, reduced incidence of poverty, rise in the average wages, an increased share of trade in gross domestic product, and improved health outcomes.
Universities have the potential to attract talent to cities and nations. The ruling party and its government must rethink its higher education policy

These countries simultaneously raised their rates of participation in higher education. Indeed, the countries that benefited most from integration with the world economy achieved the most marked increases in educational levels. In addition, there is growing evidence that university education, through its role in empowering domestic constituencies, building institutions, and nurturing favorable regulatory frameworks and governance structures, is vital to a country’s efforts to increase social capital and to promote social cohesion, which is proving to be an important determinant of economic growth and development.

In such a context, I tried to evaluate whether the Pakistani higher educational institutions have the capacity or are contributing to economic growth or increasing social capital, if provided an environment free of political interference. I chose Sargodha University as a test case.

In recent years, the university not only rolled out intensive policy measures involving comprehensive reform of education but also enhanced its teaching and research profile, knowledge-sharing capacity and academic linkages along with youth engagement in leadership and bridging skills gap.

The university has taken several initiatives to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon the faculty, staff, students and general public. It includes conversion of hostels into quarantine centers, establishment of telemedicine center, a field hospital to house 100 corona patients, donation of masks and sanitizers, awareness programs through FM 98.2 and various social media campaigns and online facilitation of the students and visitors through its facilitation center.

Keeping in view the importance of CPEC, the Pakistan Institute of China Studies was established in 2018 in the varsity to introduce and promote Chinese language, culture and civilization and deepening understanding of Chinese policies and role in the global economy and politics among students. The institute, strengthening people-to-people contact between both countries and preparing youth by imparting essential skills, aligned with the objectives of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The Career Development Center of the university continues to provide opportunities for personal and professional grooming of students by engaging them in interactive sessions, critical thinking focused workshops and self-help groups. These trainings provide comprehensive assistance in preparing students for the competitive world of work and professional life. The Career Development Center of the university also launched its Campus Internship Program, the only of its kind to provide students hands-on experience to start their businesses or make them ready for the job market. The university pays Rs20,000 and Rs10,000 to its graduates and enrolled students for their services.

Over 2,000 students have been trained by the E-Rozgaar Center of the university who earned thousands of dollars on a monthly basis. The good thing was women’s participation which was 54 percent of the total. The university’s incubation center is also preparing students for an entrepreneurial future by providing necessary knowledge and skills required for organizing and carrying out such activities. It helps students to start their businesses, share ideas with industries and assist them for startups as well.

It was the result of these initiatives that the university has gained a good reputation at national and international levels during the last four years owing to the reformist agenda of the current administration.

Universities have the potential to attract talent to cities and nations. The ruling party and its government must rethink its policy and the amended ordinance to fulfill its manifesto.

Policymakers should realize the importance of higher education institutions in contributing to the vitality of communities and developing tolerant and inclusive societies as producers of human capital. They should also learn from the constituent institutions that are playing significant roles in reshaping skylines, national economic growth, providing new civic identities and have become hotbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Mubashar Naqvi is a media researcher.

He can be reached at mubashar_naqvi@yahoo.com