Pakistani Academia: Trends, Politics and Possibilities of Radical Futures - II

Ali Usman Qasmi how PhDs were churned out from Pakistani universities in bulk and at what cost

Pakistani Academia: Trends, Politics and Possibilities of Radical Futures - II
Dr Atta-ur-Rahman entered the scene when he joined the cabinet of General Pervez Musharraf as education minister and helped set up the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002. The commission was established on the basis of policy recommendations submitted in March 2002 by a task force on improvement of higher education. The task force had incorporated in its report insights from The Boston Group Report on Higher Education in Pakistan, which was prepared by a group of US-based Pakistani academics. A separate analysis of these documents is required, but here it would suffice to mention that even these documents – prepared by some of Pakistan’s leading academics – did not delve deep into the impact of colonial legacy or Pakistan’s chequered political history as factors impacting the state of education in the country.

As for Rahman’s vision of history and politics, his writings – mostly written after his ouster from the cabinet after a decade-long sting – show that he is a techno-fascist for whom individual liberties and democratic values hold little value. Education should simply be about training citizens to be in service of the state, working for its glory as reflected in numbers denoting growth rate, GDP and per capita income. All of this is garbed under the guise of such fancy terms as knowledge-based economy, fourth generation industrial revolution and so on. He served as a minister under a military dictator and continues to canvass for autocratic rule – sometimes in the name of proposing a presidential form of system for Pakistan or, on other occasions, by citing the example of Chinese model of development. In February 2018, he wrote:

“Much has been written about the necessity of a developing country to have a democratic system for socioeconomic development...China would not have developed at this extraordinary pace had it been under a democratic system which could work only if certain prerequisites were met, the most important of them being education. The tremendous progress that was made by Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew, by Korea under General Park and by Malaysia under Mahathir Mohammed, are also excellent examples of the transformation of weak Asian economies to powerful countries under autocratic rules.”

With such a mind-set, it is not surprising that Rahman did not undertake an intellectual appraisal of Pakistan’s education problem and its complex history of encounter with colonial modernity. For him, Pakistan’s education was about lack of PhDs, resources and funds. For him, it was never about the question of intellect or campuses as spaces for creative thought, political expression of dissent and freedom of speech. At least I have never come across these ideas in any of Rahman’s speeches or writings. As minister of education and the person entrusted with the task of reforming Pakistan’s higher education, it should have been a priority for him to conceptualise the idea of education in broader historical, political and philosophical perspectives.
It is not surprising that Rahman did not undertake an intellectual appraisal of Pakistan’s education problem and its complex history of encounter with colonial modernity. For him, Pakistan’s education was about lack of PhDs, resources and funds

Rahman was a scientist – Pakistan’s most respected, most prolific scientist. He was not wrong when he pointed out the woeful lack of funding and resources available for research. The University Grants Commission (UGC), which preceded the HEC, had a paltry annual budget which was mostly spent on organising inter-university volley ball championships! So, this is not a dismissal of Rahman’s concerns when he took over as Pakistan’s education minister and transformed the UGC into Higher Education Commission (HEC). It is just that his panacea made the ailment worse because it failed to take cognisance of structural issues that had little to do with funding and resources.

Rahman had a single point agenda – produce PhD scholars, especially in sciences. There was no specific scholarship scheme for social sciences/humanities in Pakistan during the years when Rahman was in charge. In addition to a scholarship program, specific to sciences, there was a general scheme that was open to all disciplines. The students from humanities background were clearly at a disadvantage since they had to sit for a qualifying exam that had a heavy quantum of mathematics. Resultantly, bulk of scholarships (I don’t have exact figures, but I can guess that the number must be close to 90 percent) were awarded to science students and the rest to social scientists, mostly economists, who were better equipped to perform in this test as compared to students from such fields as philosophy, history and anthropology.

Even his vision for promotion of science needs further scrutiny. As I said, this vision was based on a single point agenda of producing PhDs. This, for him, was a magic formula of sorts which would work wonders in enhancing scientific research in Pakistan. Rahman arranged for thousands of Pakistanis to be sent abroad for PhD. What was even more impervious to reason was granting of 5,000 stipends every year to PhD students enrolled in Pakistani universities. There was absolutely no way Pakistani universities could absorb such a large number of PhD students since there weren’t enough qualified professors to offer proper supervision. On their part, professors were swayed by the monetary prospects of this policy as successful completion of PhD by a student entitled his/her supervisor substantial monetary reward. Unsurprisingly, PhDs were churned out from Pakistani universities in bulk. Even then, the supply far exceeded the demand for PhD scholarships in local universities.

The case with foreign scholarships was no different either. Since HEC had forged a partnership with their counterparts in European countries, these bodies for higher education were responsible for finding placements for Pakistani students in their universities. European universities were preferred because there was no tuition fee to be paid. But the downside was that these universities did not offer any coursework in their PhD programs. Pakistani students were coming from an educational background where they had not been properly trained in basic research methods. A rigorous coursework could have transformed an untrained student with good potential into a trained researcher with a capability to develop and articulate new ideas. Choosing universities that offered coursework and an intellectual training of students to the point where they became fit for doctoral research would have been a much slower process. It would have cost more, and not many Pakistani students would have been able to get admissions to such universities.

Rahman, on the other hand, wanted quick results. In one of his earlier statements he said the idea was to make massive changes at such a rapid pace that the policy overhaul becomes irreversible simply because of the quantum of change and its pace.
Successive governments in Pakistan have blindly pursued the agenda of setting up universities in every district of Pakistan. Other than financial insecurity and lack of administrative autonomy, these institutions do not even have the requisite academic infrastructure

A similar premium was laid on the quantity of research articles, rather than their quality. Hoodhboy and Isa Daudpota have been pointing out the flaws of such an approach for almost a decade. Rahman, on the other hand, counts it as his biggest achievement. According to him, he has put Pakistani academia on the global map of scientific research. Other than the poor quality of much that has been produced, what is worse is that university academics earn a handsome salary and other perks based on their ‘research performance.’ It not only inflates the cost of education since the university must provide a part of tenure track faculty’s salary, it discourages quality research to be produced as researchers feel pressured to compromise on the quality of publication in favour of quantity to be able to apply for yearly bonuses. When it comes to rewarding the faculty for their research productivity, at least I have not come across instances where universities make distinctions between quantity and quality. Even for appointments and promotions, it simply sets a minimum number for published articles. The only caveat is that it should be in an HEC recognised journal of some category. For the highest category, that is a journal which as an impact factor, there is no distinction if the impact factor is 0.01 or 35. It is also worth mentioning that some of the journals recognised by the HEC were those in which faculty members were serving as editors or had bulk of their own publications.

Governance Structures for New Universities

The HEC has, in the recent past, organised conferences inviting vice chancellors from all over Pakistan to workout governance strategies. The major drawback, other than the fact that the focus remains on vice chancellors with little engagement with faculty, is that universities are simply approached as an administrative problem. This is why recent trend in the hiring of vice chancellors shows a preference for candidates with degrees in management sciences. Instead of academic excellence, those with administrative experience are preferred. Another alarming trend is the lack of autonomy that is essential for the working for any university. This comes from two main factors.

One is the nature of the legal framework adopted for newly established universities since the early 2000s. Unlike older universities which have considerable autonomy, newer institutions were chartered in a manner that allowed governmental checks on their activities.

Second, and that is the more important reason, the bulk of these institutions have simply been set up to show an increase in the number of universities in the country. Take the example of Lahore where almost half a dozen colleges – Government College Lahore, Kinnaird College, Lahore College for Women and Home Economics College among others – have been elevated to the status of a university. Previously, these were colleges affiliated with Punjab University. The mere grant of a university charter does not ensure that these ‘universities’ now have a strong, independent financial base to sustain academic activities that are crucial to university life. They do not even have enough funds to maintain such basic expenditures as payment of utility bills and salaries, let alone develop purpose-built new campuses on lands allotted to them by the provincial government. This means that these universities will always remain dependent on provincial government’s financial support. When HEC was all powerful, it could dictate its policies since every institution – big or small – looked towards it for money. Now that its budget has gradually been slashed, provincial governments have stepped in. This effectively means that other than Punjab University or BZU Multan, most other universities are dependent on favours of a section officer running the higher education department in the Punjab civil secretariat!

Now that further educational cuts have been proposed, universities have been asked by the HEC to raise their fees to meet day-to-day expenses. Since there is no fixed capital or an endowment fund from which the institution can draw money, the university is reduced to a teaching college where faculty is asked to teach large classes and multiple sections in morning and evening sessions.

Still, successive governments in Pakistan have blindly pursued the agenda of setting up universities in every district of Pakistan. Other than financial insecurity and lack of administrative autonomy, these institutions do not even have the requisite academic infrastructure. In all the proposed universities for districts across Pakistan – including the one to be established in the prime minister house in Islamabad – it will be next to impossible to set up even one philosophy department, for instance. There is such a dearth of experts in all key areas, especially of humanities, that not even top ranked public and private universities in Pakistan are able to set up proper departments in such disciplines as philosophy, history and anthropology. So, when policy makers talk about universities in every district, they mainly have the concept of a university giving degrees in computer sciences and business studies. It rarely goes beyond that.

Private universities are no better either. Taking the example of Lahore again, there are numerous private universities with huge campuses – in one instance, a university with more than 100 departments and faculties – and yet they are not driven towards establishing campuses that promote critical thinking or critiques of power. The faculty neither has surety of tenure nor access to research grants or travel funds. In many cases, there is no concept of sabbatical leave either. It is not uncommon to hear of faculty being forced to give good grades to students (and never to fail them) to improve admissions. Again, almost none of them have a proper department in any discipline of the humanities. A newly established university focusing just on humanities and arts is finding it extremely difficult to hire qualified academics in relevant fields. It is still easier to find economists as there is a much larger skill pool for a much more attractive job market, or there is an abundant supply of practitioners in the fields of law or architecture but not an academic with a proper qualification and research experience to teach law or architecture.

What needs to be done?

Despite numerous critiques of the HEC’s policies by Hoodhboy and others, there is little that has changed. As per Rahman’s planning, changes were massive and swift, and so they have come to stay. The only thing halting further progression of his policies is the eighteenth amendment that has strengthened provinces to manage education on their own. As for the HEC, last year it shared with universities the draft of a vision statement for 2025. This 100-page document repeats the same mantra of creating a knowledge economy without any self-appraisal of HEC’s policies and many of their disastrous impacts. There is hardly one paragraph in the entire document that focuses on the humanities and social sciences. There, too, it simply talks about the ‘utility’ of these disciplines in the promotion of tourism which is set to flourish with the successful completion of CPEC! There is absolutely no other vision about what the humanities is and how it is central to many of the existential questions faced by Pakistan today.

When Tariq Banori took charge as chairperson of the HEC, his appointment was widely hailed because of his academic credentials. It remains to be seen if his vision for higher education in Pakistan addresses some of the concerns highlighted in this article, especially the issues of free speech and critical thinking.

The Role of Progressive Academics

It is with this history and current state of higher education in Pakistan that a group of scholars and academics working in various private and public sector universities have come together and set up a forum where issues relating to universities would be discussed. In numerous discussions that led up to the framing of the charter, we learned about numerous challenges faced, not just by faculty, but by administrative staff as well as students. In both private as well as public sector universities, the growing trend is to hire faculty and staff on short term contracts that are subjected to review on annual basis. This ensures that the workforce remains disciplined and does not digress from the intellectual agenda set for the university. The summary dismissal of Ammar Ali Jan from Punjab University or the refusal to extend his contract by the Government College University Lahore is one clear example amongst many of such tactics of disciplinary control.

Apart from a few universities, academics do not even have the choice of drafting their own course outlines or assigning readings for it. Libraries have abysmally low annual funds available for the purchase of books. Scientific labs, even when they have high-tech equipment, do not have electricity to run it on or to keep them at the right temperature. Many universities do not even have proper financial procedures for purchase of consumables required on a regular basis to run research labs. It can take months, and unconventional payment methods like Western Union, to purchase something as basic as a cell line. Most crucially, there is no culture of free speech. The faculty feels constantly pressured to adopt a conformist approach. Some universities have received official warnings for hosting seminars or supervising research that is deemed harmful to the ideological framework of the country. The Mashal Khan tragedy just a few years ago and continued incarceration of Junaid Hafeez on blasphemy charges are grim reminders of the fears and anxieties faced by academics and students who dare to raise critical questions on an everyday basis. Online bullying, sometimes direct threats, faced by academics like Nida Kirmani for their political activism shows the challenges faced, especially by progressive academics, to uphold values of liberty, equality and justice.

When it comes to students, the list of problems is endless. A couple of years ago, students at Government College University Lahore protested to get such basic amenities as clean drinking water in hostels and soaps in washrooms on campus! These students were initially bullied by the administration, but their demands were eventually met as the campaign gained traction on social media. All the problems relating to freedom of expression, funds for libraries and upkeep of research labs have an impact on students as well. If the faculty is research active, able to generate fresh ideas, raise thought provoking questions and debates in classrooms, it will eventually produce a university space that is vibrant and brimming with creative energy. It is good for the faculty and students, which means it will have a positive impact on the society at large.

To work towards these ideals, the Progressive Academics Collective will be organising seminars and run campaigns involving students and faculty. The fundamental question would be to think about alternative epistemes and creative possibilities in humanities, arts and sciences. This requires free thinking, room for dissent and courage to speak truth to power. This must be the minimum condition for any project that seriously aims at decolonizing our pasts for the possibilities of a radical future.

The author is a member of Progressive Academics Collective. He teaches history at LUMS