On Higher Education in Pakistan

(Syed Ali Haider, Sialkot)

A few years back, we day-dreamed of reforming Education in Pakistan. This was 1998 or 99. Pervez Hoodbhoy had come to Chicago for a talk and we gathered around trying to see light at the end of the nuclear tunnel. We were a diverse bunch; history, physics, economics, anthropology phd-candidates. Most had had their initial schooling in Pakistan and recognized very well the horrendous system. The discussion dwindled after the initial euphoria, when we realized that we were powerless in the face of a military and civil bureaucracy that invited no meddlers. Some of us went to work for Micro$oft, some started teaching and some are writing lame blogs. Except Hoodbhoy.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is fiercely smart and dedicated. He currently teaches at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad – the flagship university of Pakistan. In two installments, he has just written the clearest denouncement of Pakistan’s higher education in the highest circulation English daily in Pakistan, Dawn. I cannot urge you more strongly to click here and here and read.

His message is clear. Pakistan has no framework of higher education that can match up to the rest of the world. The universities are a quagmire of despotic clerks and professors. The PhDs cannot function in the real world. There is no standard of research in the country in hard sciences or social sciences. There are more mosques on campuses than bookstores. Knowledge is passed by rote and memorization in an endless loop from teacher to student to teacher. Teachers do not engage in or tolerate critical thinking. Any old place can slap a university sign on the door and become an accredited institution to qualify for govt. subsidy. JNU? IIT? forget it, we cannot even match Tehran University in a country cut off from the world for 25 years.

Let me tell a small anecdote. Last spring, I walked into the Oriental Collection in Punjab University Library and asked to see the catalogue. After proving my authenticity as a student, I was asked by the clerk to write down the name of the manuscript that I wanted to see. I said, well, I don’t know which manuscript I want to see because I don’t know what is in your holdings. I was asked to go to the Old Campus and purchase the catalogue. Sure thing. Next day, I came back and had a specific call# or two. I was told to, then, write a petition to the Oriental Librarian requesting permission to see the manuscript. When presented with the petition, she didn’t even glance up from her desk and told me to go back to Old Campus and get the petition stamped by the Chair of the Persian Dept. for validation that my research agenda necessitated that manuscript. She also threw in a lecture on my bad English for good measure (this damn yankee accent). I went to see the Chair of the Persian Dept., explained my research, showed him my petition and asked for his assistance in this matter. He let me sit out there for a while before grilling me on why I would want to study such odd things and shouldn’t I be making good money as a computer engineer in Houston. Finally, he signed the petition. The next day, I returned to the Oriental Librarian. She did not even LOOK at the petition I was handing out to her, simply stated to the clerk to go get what I wanted. Power play. Anyways, the clerk says to come back the next day and they will pull the manuscripts from the archives. Sure thing. I returned the next day and was given the stack of manuscripts and a desk to work on.

So yeah. bureaucracy sucks. And it has sucked in the Higher Education Commission which was created to reform and modernize Pakistan’s universities. Instead, it got marginalized in union-politics and fear-mongering.

Hoodbhoy has some excellent suggestions. Requiring all graduate applicants to take the GRE; instituting tenure review and administrative review; re-starting student unions on campus; invigorating cultural and social discourse and, most intriguingly, attracting Indian teachers.

One wishes it could be otherwise. It would be a major breakthrough if Indian and Iranian teachers could be brought to Pakistan. Indians, in particular, would find it much easier to adapt to local ways and customs than others and also have smaller salary expectations. The huge pool of strong Indian candidates could be used to Pakistan’s advantage – it could pick the best teachers and researchers, and those most likely to make a positive impact on the system. In the present mood of rapprochement, it is hard to think of a more meaningful confidence building measure.

Couldn’t agree more. One of my dream short-term gigs would be at JNU. I am sure there are scholars and researchers in India who would want to try out decadent Pakistan for a few months/years.

There are some bright spots. Lahore University of Management Sciences [LUMS] has attracted foreign capital, foreign teachers and a higher caliber of students by adhering to international standards. It should act as a model just as Hoodbhoy’s op-ed should act as a declaration for reforms.

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