Debating Education

By Anjum Altaf

I admire Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy for not giving up on education in Pakistan. In a recent article  (HEC — stormy times up ahead, Dawn, May 25, 2019), he suggested a debate on the contrasting visions for higher education offered by Dr. Tariq Banuri, the current head of the HEC, and Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, who held the position earlier.

Since then Dr. Rahman has also articulated his vision (Higher education in turmoil, The News, June 1, 2019). It would therefore be a lost opportunity to not discuss the issue further given the centrality of education to the future of the country. Needless to say, in countries that hope to progress each succeeding generation must be better educated than the one preceding it, building and improving on the latter’s achievements.

The terms of the debate are provided by the two contrasting visions as summarized by Dr. Hoodbhoy. Dr. Banuri’s vision places emphasis on “concentrating the bulk of HEC’s resources into widening and strengthening undergraduate teaching across Pakistan” while Dr. Rahman’s emphasis is on “the number of published research papers, patents obtained, and PhDs produced locally.”

This is primarily a difference in emphasis. Both Drs. Banuri and Rahman are sophisticated enough to know that it is not an either/or proposition — both undergraduate education and doctoral research have their place in an ideal system of higher education. However, the difference of emphasis, and the allocation of scarce resource it implies, is stark enough to trigger very different trajectories which need to be considered not in the abstract but in the context of the concrete realities facing Pakistan today.

From my perspective, as a scholar with a PhD from a research-oriented university and an educationist having served as dean at LUMS, among the leading undergraduate institutions in Pakistan, I am partial to the Banuri vision. It is not possible to have sustainable doctoral programs without good undergraduate education. Nor does it make sense to have a few good doctoral programs benefiting a very small number by shortchanging the overwhelming majority of students destined for the job market after obtaining undergraduate degrees.

Dr. Rahman has labelled the Banuri vision “a scheme that would make the universities of Pakistan low-level community colleges focusing largely on undergraduate teaching.” This is an unfair characterization. In fact, many would contend that good teaching institutions like Lahore College for Women and Islamia College Peshawar have been transformed into poorly performing universities by HEC policies. Their doctoral programs are seriously understaffed at the level of quality required to deliver acceptable results.

Given the tradeoff, it is poor resource allocation to produce a few mediocre PhDs locally at the cost of neglecting the many undergraduates since the available faculty can give their time to either one or the other. In any case, the most promising students prefer to obtain their post-graduate degrees abroad given the premium on foreign qualifications and the ready availability of scholarships, leaving a residual cohort available for enrollment in local PhD programs. The general quality of undergraduate programs is also presently so weak that most students the HEC sends abroad for PhDs are unable to gain admission in first-tier universities, many failing to even pass the basic GRE qualifying tests.

The other ills spawned by the earlier HEC focus on numerical targets, like number of publications, coupled with perverse financial incentives have been repeatedly documented by scholars like Dr. Hoodbhoy and Dr. Isa Daudpota. These include the tidal wave of plagiarism, the plague of fake journals, the mass enrollment of doctoral students, and the production of cringe-worthy dissertations. These need arresting at the earliest if higher education is to serve the mass of entrants into the job market rather than a small group of beneficiaries who are exploiting the system at the expense of students they are mandated to educate.

In my view Dr. Banuri has the priorities right at this stage but competent and well-intentioned as he is, it is not within his powers to work a miracle. Dr. Banuri’s mandate is limited to higher education but I am sure he recognizes that while the problem there is acute, that is not where the solution lies. Just as a robust undergraduate system is a prerequisite for successful doctoral programs, so a healthy high school system is needed for building good undergraduate programs.

Unfortunately, the high school system is currently in dire straits and its public component is getting progressively worse. A school education that does not teach students how to learn or how to think and discourages open inquiry cannot be expected to provide the raw material that can be salvaged by undergraduate education no matter how good it is. I can vouch for this on the basis of my experience as dean at LUMS which inducts among the best high school students in the country. It is generally recognized within LUMS that the bottom quintile to the bottom half of the entering class fails to benefit commensurate with the very rich resources available at the institution because of the burden of a weak high school education. This speculation could be gainfully confirmed if LUMS were to track the progress of this cohort of its alumni.   

The bad news is that high school education in Pakistan is so heavily politicised as to be virtually impervious to reform. It will only collapse when it brings down the rest of the system by oversupplying graduates with mismatched skills burdened with rising expectations and a sense of entitlement but unable to find jobs in a stagnant environment in which good jobs are already being replaced by less well paying ones in the informal sector or in the ‘gig’ economy.

I have joined this debate at the invitation of Dr. Hoodbhoy with the sinking feeling that it is an academic exercise. Tinkering with higher education is like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic quite oblivious to the gaping hole in the bottom taking in water at an exponentially increasing rate.

The writer has a PhD from Stanford University and was Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion appeared in Dawn on June 16, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.       

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