Lessons from History: A Farewell And A Warning To QAU's Students

Lessons from History: A Farewell And A Warning To QAU's Students
The biggest lessons that history seeks to teach us all are the mistakes made in the past, with the hope they will not be repeated. Or if the mistake continues to be made, that instruction through history would help break the cycle.

Perhaps that is why the outgoing head of the History Department at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad has written a terse farewell letter to his students.

But more than a simple and loving message of goodbye, after spending nearly two decades in the varsity, Department Chairperson Dr Ilhan Niaz's three-page long resignation letter is a warning to his students about the university, the city and life in Pakistan in general.

"I think it fit to leave this note as a summary of my experience in the hope that it might help you make better sense of the reality you face."

The following text largely contains excerpts from Dr Niaz's public resignation.

Ecological crisis of our own making

"To begin with, I do not envy your generation or those to come," he starts tersely.

He adds that the objective constraints of a devastating ecological crisis are now setting in. "You simply do not have time to lead normal lives."

Dr Niaz credited academics and scholars, and scientists for being at the forefront of articulating the challenge posed by climate breakdown for the past 35 years.

"To their shame, our political leaders, administrators, mainstream economists, and captains of industry have
not heeded wise and timely counsel," he blamed.

"The vast majority of you will see your lives cut short if
not dramatically constrained by the impending environmental collapse," he warned.

"This collapse will hit you regardless of race, language, religion, gender, or any other identity marker, though it will affect the already marginalized far more in the short term than the presently prosperous.

He went on to point to an example close to home.

"The construction of a bypass through your university campus is but a single instance of a broader and evidently irresistible decay and descent into ecocide," he said, urging his students to oppose it.

"You need to resist this, for you are very much in a struggle for your right to exist – a right that, sadly, your parents and grandparents have not deemed fit to protect. I am a bad ancestor, as is practically everyone I know, though I can only hope that my awareness of the terrible reality of my moral
standing might offer at least a distant prospect of redemption."

Poor academics or poor academics

Dr Niaz also extended his apology for being a poor mentor.

"In general, the academic staff at QAU and other contemporary universities are, like me, terrible teachers," he admitted before going on to give an explanation.

"There is an arithmetic reason for this. When I was a student at the Quaid-i-Azam University back in 2001-3, we had ten regular faculty members at the Department of History for a total of 80
students (all degrees)," he recalled.

"Today, we have nine regular faculty for 335 students. It is, resultantly, impossible for academics of my generation to be remotely as good as teachers or supervisors as those who taught us here in these same halls and classrooms," he detailed.

I understand that many of you are demanding and harsh towards visiting faculty. But you must know that our visiting faculty members, as well as examiners, receive their honoraria semesters, sometimes years after they have done their duty to QAU.

QAU - education served with a bowl of 'Financial Crunch'

You should also know that our History alumni essentially pay for whatever improvements you have seen here and that the Department does not even get stationery, lightbulbs, and cleaning supplies in sufficient quantity and on time from the administration.

The fees at QAU are low compared to the cost of running the university and nothing compared to what the best private universities in Pakistan charge (a year at LUMS will cost you Rs2-Rs3 million these days).

The government does not extend enough budgetary support, and so we teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.

For nearly as long I have been at QAU, ' Financial Crunch' has been the watchword, so much so that if the university were to launch its own brand of breakfast cereals, they could be called 'Financial Crunch'.

QAU's fiscal doom loop

Not enough government support + inability to charge students fair economic cost of education + cost escalation = starvation diet, which forces the university to increase enrollment, which, in turn, puts even more burden on the facilities/faculty, which leads to poorer academic outcomes and experience without actually bridging the fiscal gap.

As a public sector entity, QAU can't rationalize costs
on the administrative side either, has a ridiculous number of unproductive non-academic staff and bears life-long social security liabilities for their benefit.

Still, even with all this bureaucratic drag, QAU could probably break even if it charged Rs100,000-Rs150,000 ($350-$520) for a regular student's semester – but even this would be too much for most.

Entitlement and privilege

Then there is the hand most of you have been dealt before reaching QAU.

As a federal public sector university, QAU has a mission – to be open to all peoples, classes, and creeds, to act as an agent of social mobility, and serve as a bastion of enlightenment.

For this reason, Pakistani elites despise QAU. Its very existence is an affront to their sense of entitlement and privilege. When they see you, what they think is that "How dare these children of artisans, small farmers, and subaltern officialdom, drawn in large part from the hinterland, aspire to compete with our metropolitan, pampered, subsidy-guzzling, Anglophone brats?"

Many seriously think that General Ayub Khan made a terrible mistake by moving this university to its present location in the Margalla Reserve Forest (as per the old maps).

This land that now houses your university could have been Sector E-7 on steroids or otherwise commercialized.

This is why they starve it of funds, appoint one irresolute individual after another as its vice-chancellor, and allow its land to be grabbed by other government organizations or influential people.

Their kids will go from Aitchison or Grammar School to Oxford and Cambridge or some other fancy place – so they just don't care for your well-being. They really don't care.

You might recall that the former finance minister, Miftah Ismail, gave a talk at QAU hosted by the History Society. In it, he laid bare the extent of insularity that characterizes the Pakistani elite – maybe 10,000 families in all – not a 1% republic as he generously characterized it, but a 0.01 % republic.

Your justified anger should be directed outwards at that 0.01%, not at each other and certainly not at the starving, broken, but somehow still competitive entity that is QAU that annoyingly prevails year after year in global rankings against vastly better resourced national and regional competitors.

QAU's refusal to falter and fail academically is yet another cause of anguish for our decision-makers, who often have a pathological hatred and contempt for learning and the people and places that provide it.

Think of it another way. Imagine you are addressing a section of senior Pakistani officialdom. Ask them the following questions:

  1. Would you send your own kids to the local civil government public school?

  2. Would you seek medical treatment in the general admissions line at a government hospital?

  3. Would you drink water straight from the tap?

  4. Would you take public transport to work and expect your family to do the same?

I can guarantee you that practically all of them would say NO in reply to these questions.

The real adversary

Since most of you have reached here from the ruins of Pakistan's public sector primary and secondary education system through sheer force of will, I shouldn't need to tell you any of this.

Please realize this. Stop fighting each other. And start fighting for your futures against your real adversaries.

Despite everything, while QAU stands, you have a chance to learn and grow and make some headway.

Make the best of this chance – stop shutting the university down and engaging in violence towards each other. Don't negotiate with a gun to your own head because no one who matters in Pakistan cares if you pull the trigger and destroy your own academic environment. In fact, the elite will be pleased that after having done literally everything possible to prevent you from reaching the Center, you waste your time at QAU hurting each other and undermining your own learning opportunities.

The real competition will begin after you leave QAU, and there you have to go up against LUMS graduates, foreign qualified professionals, the praetorian and Mandarin bourgeoisie, and medical doctors, engineers, accountants, etc., for a small and relatively shrinking number of important career placements.

It is perhaps only then that you will realize the enormous price you have paid for the turbulence at QAU.

The problem at QAU

Here, it is necessary to admit fully and frankly that in my 20 years at QAU, I have been unable to convince anyone in a position of authority of the need for serious reform.

Only one of the dozens of proposals I have authored or contributed to has been entertained (that one was marking June 21 as the Foundation Day of the University, and this, too, appears to have been all but abandoned).

I have, quite literally, for two decades, gone from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. This said, after the defeat in the bypass case, in which it proved impossible to convince the university to defend its own campus, I have felt demoralized in a way that feels unusually lasting.

The problem with QAU is much the same as with Pakistan – there is no real reform constituency, and as long as a few people at the top are doing well for themselves, the status quo is considered desirable.

There is no widespread public pushback against arbitrary and self-aggrandizing behaviour. And, as is the case with the broader system, those who hunger the most for important posts and high-sounding titles are precisely the least qualified to discharge their responsibilities with wisdom and grace – Solon's paradox is at play here with a vengeance.

The price to be paid for admission to a charmed inner circle of "decision makers" (I use inverted commas because they are primarily concerned with finding ways to avoid making serious decisions since that entails acceptance of responsibility) in the public sector is your self-respect.

Final advice

I hope you will always choose your self-respect and a place as, at best, an informed, engaged, but, ultimately, superfluous outsider over the intellectual and moral debasement that inevitably accompanies being an insider in our context.

I hope that this admission of failure and acceptance of responsibility will enable you to do better.

Given how poor my own track record has been, you would have to work very hard indeed to do worse!