Pakistan’s universities at 75

AT birth, Pakistan inherited Punjab University in Lahore, the only among the Raj’s 16 universities. Seventy-five years later, there are 120-plus officially recognised universities. Roughly an equal number of non-recognised institutions are self-declared teaching universities. College numbers have skyrocketed from 30-35 to 1,500 or more. Higher education has taken off — or so it seems.

Commonly touted signs of success: most universities boast lists with a PhD against every teacher’s name and award a fantastically large number of doctoral degrees. Research is thriving. A half joke is that professors are publishing so many research papers and books these days they have no time to even read what they write. But in fact it’s no joke at all!

One superstar professor with the highest Pakistani national award is credited with 1,000 mathematics research papers over three years — almost one per day. Another publishes an average of 25 thick books in chemistry research (about one per two weeks) every year and dozens of papers annually. In 2020, Stanford University reportedly chose 81 Pakistani scientists from 159,683 scientists across the world. The myth lives although Stanford flatly denied the report.

For all these ‘successes’, within campuses the stench of intellectual rot is overpowering. Ask a prolific author to present his research work before an informed audience and hackles rise. Rare is the professor, dean, or vice chancellor who reads books for pleasure or can sensibly debate some current academic topic. Most cannot name the last serious book they read, fiction or otherwise.

Scholarly discourse is rare and even basic competencies can be difficult to find in universities.

Rare also is the professor who delivers an academic lecture in syntactically correct Urdu or English. A bastardised admixture is normal for this linguistically troubled country. Writing skills? Even with correcting smartphones and computers, deciphering what a professor or student really wants to say isn’t always easy. Brilliant exceptions exist but, of course, exceptions are exceptions.

Academic poverty becomes more visible upon traversing softer fields like business administration and digital marketing towards harder ones like mathematics and physics. In those 20-30 university departments that teach harder subjects only a few dozen professors can solve 12th-grade A-level math-physics problems or compete with a good pre-university Vietnamese student.

Social sciences and liberal arts are relatively better off. But professors and students must worry about red lines. Appealing to abstract canons of academic freedom won’t help since ‘imported’ Western concepts are scorned. A case in point is the discipline of philosophy. This requires unfettered freedom to explore. Nine philosophy departments notwithstanding, can anyone name a single Pakistani philosopher accepted as such by the international community of philosophers?

A still seamier, uglier side: some universities brazenly sell degrees under the counter, professors demand money from students in exchange for grades, administrators boost personal incomes through fixing appointments, and sexual harassment is okay until it becomes too visible. Although the student body is hyper religious, regular in prayer and eager to lynch blasphemers, yet most are comfortable with cheating in examinations.

Surveying the landscape of this broken system one asks: what created such appalling intellectual deserts punctuated by just an occasional oasis? History gives the answer.

Living in the dream world of past glories, two centuries ago the Muslims of north India were dead set against modern secular education and the influx of new European ideas. The heroic efforts of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to fight for science, English language, and modern learning met some success but not enough. His Aligarh Muslim University, the so-called “arsenal of Muslim India”, eventually became the forward base for the Pakistan Movement. However, contrary to his hopes, AMU failed to become an Oxford or Cambridge.

Acceptance of non-madressah education was slow and grudging. It came too late. At partition, most professors were Hindus who fled to India once rioting began. Abandoned senior posts were promptly seized by junior Muslim professors and lecturers. Bypassing due process, political appointments allowed academic mediocrities to become department heads, deans and vice chancellors. The new gatekeepers were perennially suspicious of potential challenges to their authority. Thus each new generation slipped behind the previous one. A degenerative cycle explains the present.

To fix, two different directions were taken. First, after Gen Musharraf joined the war on terror, American dollars rained from the skies. All earlier objections to niggardly government spending evaporated. New universities and new buildings sprouted together with new salary scales for professors, cash for publishing papers, stipends for PhDs, overseas scholarships, and sparkling new equipment.

Second, and more recently, in the name of discipline and organisation, the leadership of some large universities was handed to retired military officers. Universities in Islamabad have many such heads now. These retirees have created souped-up versions of cadet colleges they attended in Hasanabdal and Kohat. Dress and hairstyles are tightly controlled. So are thoughts.

What’s the way ahead? If the smoking genie from Aladdin’s lamp was to somehow appear and ask me for three wishes, here would be my list:

First, I wish that Pakistani professors turn into an ethical community. This means don’t reward or punish a student for any reason except academic performance; don’t pretend you know the answer to a question which you don’t actually know; don’t publish a research paper unless it has something new and important to say; don’t defend your friends once they have 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 by the vast amounts of knowledge generated by the day. Every one of us would then struggle to constantly self-learn and self-educate. In a world of incredibly rapid change, the university degree you earned yesterday means little today. Unless professors run with their changing field they cannot inspire their students.

Third, I wish all teachers and administrators acknowledge their ethical responsibility to produce young adults who can think for themselves. This means the still-dominant authoritarian traditions of teaching must go. Instead of being automatically entitled to respect by students, every teacher must earn this by demonstrating a high level of maturity and knowledge.

Hopefully the genie will grant my wishes. But I can’t seem to find that magic lamp.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.

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