Pakistan’s Universities – Problems and Solutions (Part 3)

Reprinted below in full, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy on problems and solutions for universities in Pakistan, from DAWN January 12, 2008. This is part of a series of reprints on research and education in Pakistan.

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

A KEY challenge for any new government in Pakistan will be to sort out, in all areas of public policy, the facts on the ground from the intricate fictions offered over the past eight years by Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime. As argued in my previous article (Jan 2, 2008), the claims for sweeping improvements in the public university system are false.

Dumping yet more money into the university system will not solve its basic problems. We can see that the record-setting increase in the budget for higher education — which shot up from Rs3.8bn in 2002 to Rs33.7bn in 2007 — has led to little beyond cosmetic changes. So, what can be done? Solutions are needed at three distinct levels — determining correct funding priorities, implementing approved plans and projects responsibly, and, most importantly, inducing changes in values to promote and enable real learning.

Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher education (about 0.8 million) study in about 700 colleges. These colleges receive pitifully small funding compared to universities.

During 2001-2004, the funds annually allocated to colleges averaged a miserable sum of Rs0.48bn and the spending per college student was only one-sixth that for a university student. Subsequently, this has become worse. It is no surprise then that public colleges are in desperate shape with dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and laboratory and library facilities that exist only in name.

Meanwhile, many public universities are awash in funds. They have gone on a shopping binge for all kinds of gadgetry — fax machines, fancy multimedia projectors and electricity-guzzling air-conditioners. But it would be hard to argue that any of this has served to improve teaching quality even marginally. Worse, the availability of “free money” has led to the pursuit of numerous madcap projects such as the HEC’s hugely expensive, but failed, attempt to bring in hundreds of fearful European university professors to teach in a country where suicide bombers kill at will.

The beggarly treatment of colleges compared to universities is often justified on grounds that universities perform research while colleges do not. But, notwithstanding a few honourable exceptions, this “research” has added little to the stock of existing knowledge as judged by the international community of scholars. Nevertheless, in 2005/2006 university research funding totalled a whopping Rs0.342bn. Past experience shows that much of the money will be used to buy expensive research equipment that will find little if any real use.

Instead of continuing to pay for dubious research, funding priorities must shift to improving teaching quality, especially in colleges. Pakistani university and college students, as well as their teachers, are far below internationally accepted levels in terms of basic subject understanding.

As one indicator, the performance scores of Pakistanis on the US Graduate Record Examinations, which test subject basics, are miserably poor compared to students from India or China. For example, of the 56 MPhil and PhD students who recently took the physics exam from the best physics department in the country — that at Quaid-i-Azam University — none was able to get even a semi-respectable score in this entry-level exam.

Because bad teaching quality largely comes from having teachers with insufficient knowledge of their subject, it is important both to have better teacher selection mechanisms and to create large-scale teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as trainers from across the country and from our neighbours.

It is hard to see any trainers coming from western countries, although one should try to get them. This effort will cost money and take time — perhaps of the order of a billion dollars over five years. These high-quality institutions should have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasise basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. They should award degrees to create an incentive for teachers to go there and to do well. Until a sufficiently large number of university teachers can be generated by the above (and various other) means, the senseless policy of making new universities must be discontinued.

The HEC prides itself in almost doubling the number of public universities over six years. But there is nothing to be gained from a department of English where the department’s head cannot speak or write a grammatically correct non-trivial sentence of English; a physics department where the head is confused about the operation of an incandescent light bulb; a mathematics department where graduate students have problems with elementary surds and roots; or a biology department where evolution is thought to be new-fangled and quite unnecessary to teach as part of modern biology.

Better academic planning and management at the national level — which costs very little — is crucial to having higher education institutions that actually function. Major quality improvements could result from using nation-wide standardised tests for student admission into higher education institutions; teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials effectively; and designing standardised teaching laboratories that may be efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.

But the implementation of even the best plans comes to naught without good management at the institutional level. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a patronage system because of which unqualified and unsuitable military men, as well as bureaucrats, are often appointed as vice-chancellors, principals, and registrars. Therefore, vital tasks remain unimplemented. These include enforcement of academic ethics; creating the culture of civilised debate on campuses; encouragement of community work; etc. The harm done by badly chosen senior administrators cannot be undone by any amount of money.

Sixty years of consistent failure force us to search for reasons that go beyond fiscal and administrative issues. What sets us apart from the developed world, or even India? In Pakistan, the dead hand of tradition stands squarely in the way of modern education and a modern mindset that relies on critical thinking. The educational system, shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages questioning and stresses obedience.In seeking change, it will be important to break the tyranny of the teacher, a relic of pre-modern social values. Even today, students memorise an arbitrary set of rules and an endless number of facts and say that X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook says. (I grind my teeth whenever a Master’s or PhD student in my university class gives me this argument!)

To develop thinking minds, change must begin at the school level. Good pedagogy requires encouraging the spirit of healthy questioning in the classroom. It should, therefore, be normal practice for teachers to raise such questions as: How do we know? What is important to measure? How to check the correctness of measurements? What is the evidence? How to make sense out of your results? Is there a counter explanation, or perhaps a simpler one? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such critical questions and framing reasoned answers.

Reforming higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if it considers the totality of problems, such as outlined here, and if solution strategies are pursued with honesty and integrity. This task has yet to begin.

The writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad