AAt its birth, Pakistan inherited the University of the Punjab in Lahore, the only one among the 16 universities of the Raj. Seventy-five years later, there are over 120 officially recognized universities. A roughly equal number of unrecognized institutions are self-declared teaching universities. The number of colleges has increased from 30-35 to 1,500 or more. Higher education has taken off – or so it seems.
Commonly touted signs of success: Most universities post lists with a doctorate against every teacher’s name and award an incredibly high number of doctorates. Research is flourishing. A half-joke is that professors publish so many research papers and books these days that they don’t even have time to read what they write. But in fact, it’s not a joke at all!
A superstar professor with Pakistan’s highest national award is credited with 1,000 math research papers over three years – almost one a day. Another publishes an average of 25 large chemistry research books (about one every two weeks) each year and dozens of articles each year. In 2020, Stanford University would have chosen 81 Pakistani scientists from 159,683 scientists around the world. The myth lives on though Stanford flatly denied the report.
Despite all this “success,” within campuses the stench of intellectual rot is overwhelming. Ask a prolific author to present their research in front of a discerning audience and the hedgehogs rise. Rare is the professor, dean, or vice-chancellor who reads books for pleasure or who can reasonably debate a current academic topic. Most can’t name the last serious book they read, fiction or otherwise.
Scholarly speech is rare, and even basic skills can be hard to come by at universities.
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Rare is also the professor who delivers an academic lecture in Urdu or syntactically correct English. A bastard mix is normal for this linguistically troubled country. Writing skills? Even correcting smartphones and computers, deciphering what a professor or student really means isn’t always easy. Brilliant exceptions exist but, of course, exceptions are exceptions.
Academic poverty becomes more visible crossing over from softer fields like business administration and digital marketing to harder fields like math and physics. In these 20 to 30 university departments that teach more difficult subjects, only a few dozen professors can solve A-level math and physics problems or compete with a good pre-university Vietnamese student.
The social sciences and liberal arts are relatively better off. But teachers and students need to worry about red lines. Appealing to the abstract canons of academic freedom will serve no purpose since “imported” Western concepts are despised. An example is the discipline of philosophy. This requires unfettered freedom of exploration. Notwithstanding nine departments of philosophy, can we name a single Pakistani philosopher accepted as such by the international community of philosophers?
An even more sordid and ugly side: some universities brazenly sell degrees under the counter, professors demand money from students in exchange for grades, administrators increase personal income by setting appointments, and sexual harassment is acceptable until it becomes too visible. Although the student body is hyper-religious, regular in prayer, and eager to lynch blasphemers, most are comfortable with cheating on exams.
Examining the landscape of this broken system, one wonders: what has created such appalling intellectual deserts punctuated by the occasional oasis? History gives the answer.
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Living in the dream world of past glories, two centuries ago Muslims in northern India were fiercely opposed to modern secular education and the influx of new European ideas. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s heroic efforts to fight for science, the English language and modern learning met with some success, but not enough. His Aligarh Muslim University, the so-called “Armory of Muslim India”, eventually became the forward base of the Pakistani movement. However, contrary to its hopes, AMU failed to become an Oxford or a Cambridge.
Acceptance of non-madressah education was slow and reluctant. He came too late. At Partition, most of the teachers were Hindus who fled to India once the riots started. The abandoned senior posts were quickly seized by young Muslim professors and lecturers. Bypassing due process, political appointments allowed mediocre academics to become heads of departments, deans and vice-chancellors. The new guards were constantly suspicious of potential challenges to their authority. Thus, each new generation slips behind the previous one. A degenerative cycle explains the present.
To correct, two different directions were taken. First, after General Musharraf joined the war on terror, US dollars rained down from the sky. All previous objections to stingy government spending have evaporated. New universities and new buildings have sprung up with new salary scales for professors, money for publishing papers, stipends for doctorates, scholarships abroad and gleaming new equipment.
Second, and more recently, in the name of discipline and organization, some major universities have been handed over to retired military personnel. Universities in Islamabad now have many such officials. These retirees created bloated versions of the cadet colleges they attended at Hasanabdal and Kohat. Dress and hairstyles are tightly controlled. So are the thoughts.
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What is the way forward? If the smoking genie from Aladdin’s lamp should somehow appear and ask me for three wishes, here’s my list:
First, I want Pakistani teachers to become an ethical community. This means that a student should not be rewarded or punished for any reason except academic performance; don’t pretend to know the answer to a question you don’t really know; don’t publish a research paper unless they have something new and important to say; don’t defend your friends once they’ve been caught; and don’t think you are entitled to your salary unless you actually work for it.
Second, I wish we could all be excited about the vast amounts of knowledge being generated every day. Each of us would then find it difficult to continuously self-learn and self-educate. In an incredibly fast-paced world, the college degree you earned yesterday means little today. Unless professors follow the evolution of their field, they cannot inspire their students.
Third, I want all teachers and administrators to recognize their ethical responsibility to produce young adults who can think for themselves. This means that the still dominant authoritarian teaching traditions must disappear. Instead of being automatically entitled to students’ respect, every teacher must earn it by demonstrating a high level of maturity and knowledge.
I hope the genie will grant my wishes. But I can’t find that magic lamp.
The author is a physicist and author based in Islamabad. Views are personal.
This article originally appeared in Dawn.