Knowledge for sale

Published: February 17, 2012

tariq.rahman@tribune.com.pk

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) already has ‘Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation’ in 12 universities. And if they are increased, I would only welcome such a development. However, when a recent document, released on the subject in February, calls commercialisation “Knowledge Exchange” (KE) one regrets at the euphemistic phrase tending to hide the fact that we are still talking about making money with the knowledge we produce. Let us call a spade a spade and not use terms like ‘exchange’ for business. Let me now give my views about the draft of this document.

First, there is nothing wrong with the central concept of this paper that ‘universities can play [a role] in stimulating and contributing to innovation and social and economic growth’. Indeed, the great research universities of the world — the Ivy League universities of America, Oxbridge, Russell League universities of Britain, the Sorbonne and the great European universities — do not depend on students’ fees nor on state funding. They get projects from the military, the corporate sector, NGOs, think tanks and governments to carry on consultancy work and contract research. Some academics have also refused to cooperate with the military or the corporate sector because their research products would create more efficient ways of killing people or making rich people richer. But most do become consultants and the universities get the much-needed money that creates good laboratories and libraries and also makes for merrier academic dinners. Some of this research helps create new drugs, medical equipment, new means of communication, and safer ways of travelling etc. In short, some utilitarian or applied research can be, and has been, useful for humanity though more of it has merely helped the militaries. And one thanks the heavens that there are dentists when one has a raging toothache because even the best edition of Aristotle is no help when you have it. In short, I am not against the idea of facilitating the commercialisation of research or of applied, utilitarian research.

So if KE (using HEC’s euphemism) offices are set up in all universities, its professionals are appointed and KE-friendly policies are followed without prejudice to the primacy of pure, basic research, I am all for it. Indeed, I would ask such offices to look into the possibility of creating services for dyslexia and other linguistic disorders by encouraging research in neuro- and psycholinguistics. I would also ask them to arrange for a proper linguistic survey of Pakistan on the lines of the great survey by George Grierson, almost a century back. Such a survey does have practical uses and it is being conducted in India. In this country, too, the Summer Institute of Linguistics did carry out a similar survey of the Northern Areas and Chitral and — though less thoroughly — of the Punjab too. But a proper survey is still awaited. If it comes into existence we can find out which linguistic community lives where and we can save dying languages. We can even educate children in their mother tongue and create linguistic provinces etc.

But this brings me to the points which I do not agree with. The whole tone of this document is that of building up KE at the expense of knowledge for its own sake. First, the HEC talks of recruiting and promoting people who practice KE (help in commercialising knowledge) by putting them in a new kind of tenure track system in which their activities will be treated ‘equivalent to papers produced or teaching load’. This is shocking! How can any activity be the equivalent of pure academic work. And that, too, in a university — the only institution where nothing but scholarly work should be valued as the rest of the society values money and power anyway.

Secondly, the paper suggests that by July 2014, “all research and development grants” will be indexed to its impact on the “economy and society”. That bit about society may give some loophole to put in some social science research after sexy packaging in the fashionable jargon of development, but the economy side shows the bias against non-utilitarian research. Personally, when I think of undertaking a research activity, the last thing I have in mind is whether it would have an effect on ‘society’ or ‘economy’. All that drives me is the desire to find answers. If someone finds them useful we are in luck but if not; then so be it. Research for me is like playing chess; I do it for pleasure and not for any HEC requirement or for the nation or what have you. And I am not the only person who enjoys research and does it for the fun of it. There are hundreds of biographies of scientists and scholars which bear testimony to this very attitude of mind. Indeed, this is the only real basis of all really cutting edge, paradigm-changing original research. This is the goose which lays the golden eggs and this new emphasis on utilitarian research will kill it. I think all genuine scholars should protest against such a move and prevent the HEC from making us the mere merchants of saleable knowledge.

Yet another shocker is that by 2017, guest lecturers from “fields of practice” — a euphemism for retired bureaucrats, generals, ambassadors, politicians, industrialists and bankers — will lead lectures and seminars in universities at all levels (up to 60 per cent even). Now, while I agree that their input has its uses, they are generally not aware of the theory. Moreover, rarely have any of them kept in touch with the latest literature, which proliferates in the field. So, they may be guests-in-residence and occasional lecturers (if permitted by the academic responsible for the course) or guest lecturers in open lectures, but they cannot be invited to teach proper student courses. This is insulting to academics and must always be resisted.

There are so many other things one finds objectionable: that by 2015 universities must have at least two contract or collaborative research agreements; that vice chancellors should be taught to be ‘business-like’ in their thinking; that all students should do a mandatory enterprise module and so on. Indeed, the whole idea seems to be to further sideline genuine scholars and produce businessmen in our universities. And, of course, the language is that of command. Universities are assumed not to be autonomous and HEC is assumed to be the central controlling authority for all universities. When did universities lose their autonomy? Am I — who has always supported some of the changes of the HEC since 2002 — responsible for creating a central authority which I never knew I was doing? I do not know. But I reject the methods proposed for the commercialisation of knowledge, though I accept the idea that we should sell whatever knowledge we can sell while retaining our primary right to do any kind of research without any botheration, whether somebody finds it useful or not.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2012.

Reader Comments (9)

  • White Russian
    Feb 17, 2012 - 10:34PM

    Let us face it. Presently therre is only one public sector university in the country. It is based in Islamabad and is called HEC. All the rest are its branches in various cities.
    Universities get their charter for autonomy from various provincial legislatures but are gradually forced to sacrifice it on the altar of HEC. What happened to devolution plan?

    This huge unaccountable bureacracy needs to be limited to its primary job, and should be reminded that micromanaging universities is not its function.

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  • Falcon
    Feb 18, 2012 - 12:52AM

    It seems you have picked up an old debate on academics vs. field practitioners. What you have suggested does hold valid but there are other aspects to be considered as well. With the limited resources we have, we need to utilize them in the best way possible. In order to develop human resources that are employable at a faster pace, this is the route we might have to take in the short-term. Leveraging working / retired professionals is a common practice in many renowned universities as well. This is usually done to close information gap between reality and theory. Many universities have even whole engineering and MBA programs tailored to the need of local employers. I understand this is unfair to the pursuit of reasearch and education as such, but if economic growth is our primary target in the short to medium term, this might not be too bad of an idea. If it works out well, moving to tri-partite helix structure of partnership between public, private and education sector might become feasible.

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  • Dr Imran Muhammad
    Feb 18, 2012 - 3:27AM

    In Western Universities, 10 to 20% lectures in one course are delivered by professionals. However, these professionals are highly capable because membership of any professional institution in engineering, medicines, architecture etc are protected by degree issued by the accredited university, continuous professional development (CPD) through out professional life and practice according to the professional code of ethics. If HEC want to involve professionals in universities, it would be important to improve the ‘quality of professionals’ by strengthening professional accreditation institutes.

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  • Ali M
    Feb 18, 2012 - 11:36AM

    Tariq has clearly not looked at the tuition fees of the US Ivy League universities. Harvard’s undergraduate fees are 52,000 a year. Even if they provide some financial aid to some students, their total revenue from student tuition fees must be phenomenal.

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  • Hafsa
    Feb 18, 2012 - 3:29PM

    Sad that there isn’t a single well informed/intelligent comment on this very well informed & intelligent piece raising some very valid concerns.

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  • Cynical
    Feb 18, 2012 - 5:59PM

    @Hafsa
    It’s sad but that’s the reality of today’s Pakistan.You would have found couple of hundreds of comments if the issue had something to do with morality,tradition,religion etc.
    I am a admirer of Dr Rahman ever since I read his seminal work ‘From Hindi to Urdu:A Social and Political History’

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  • Anonymous
    Feb 18, 2012 - 7:16PM

    @White Russian:
    Devolution of HEC was sacrificed at the altar of ego of current chair of HEC who was appointed chair because he has PPP connection. As he came from underdeveloped and under represented province he should have strived for more powerful HEC in provincial centers.but as this would have diluted his powers for term he opposed it for his ego. If I remember correctly he was most sought after person in those days by media men.
    This line stemming from personal ego was exploited by would be beneficiaries and and HEC stands strongest than ever. This is even unconstitutional but unfortunately laws are interpreted to suit once wishes like scriptures to match certain view point.

    When centralized education system has not done any good in last 65 year what good it will do now?
    This centralized authority will harm education in long run.
    Fortunate is Bungla Desh that they don’t need HEC in Islamabad to guide their higher education……… I am sure they are not far behind now.

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  • Assistant Professor
    Feb 19, 2012 - 8:15PM

    A perfect piece of writing… Do not want to spoil his articulation by saying anything else…

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  • Rehana
    Feb 20, 2012 - 10:44PM

    Its so sad but this is how it has happened in Pakistan whether we take medicine,education or media.Once upon a time these professions were associated with values like care of humanity,pure knowledge and guidance to people but look at the doctors now,what do they care even if due to their stike someone dies,what do media care as long as they keep getting great ratings and what do private schools care as long as they keep getting high fees and they call themselves Private Co.Sad, they are not there for knowledge but business and now how do we expect the universities to be any different in this environment and so we should thank HEC for destroying a little bit of knowledge left in PAKISTAN.

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