Recently, Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq caused an uproar when he allegedly said at the convocation of Sindh University that he would oppose the establishment of a new state university in Hyderabad. The MQM lambasted his statement, while traders in Hyderabad observed a complete strike on February 25. According to the news, the people of the city also condemned his statement.
First of all, I am rather impressed that there is such a reaction to the statement. I have visited Hyderabad numerous times, owing to lots of relatives living there, but I had never realised that people there have such a love of education, especially the traders! Seeing a large presence of child labour in the main market area, I would have never fathomed that these very traders who mistreat and overwork school age children will go on strike to defend their access to higher education. I am also rather pleased that people in a city where less than half the population can barely read or write have such love for higher education that they are appalled at the misguided statement of the minister. How mistaken I really am!
To come to reality, this issue is the same as the PhD issue highlighted several times by people like Pervez Hoodbhoy. Just as the concern on the PhD side is the ‘number’ of PhDs being churned out, rather than their quality, here, too, the ‘numbers’ game seems paramount. So, no one wonders why Hyderabad needs more universities when it has two state and two private universities already. Has anyone ever done a survey or feasibility report of the number of people in Hyderabad who are graduating out of colleges but are uncatered for in higher education? Probably not. This is because for most Pakistanis, the government and others, the ‘number’ of universities is important. Therefore, Lahore presently has around 29 degree-awarding institutions, while Karachi is only one university behind. With such a large number of universities, it is naturally assumed that higher education is flourishing and that there is nothing really wrong with this.
However, the reality is that for most of these institutions, the degree students earn is not even worth the paper it is printed on. Why? Simply because a large number of these ‘degree-awarding institutions’, do not have any quality. Most of these places are set up by enterprising gentlemen who are hoping to replicate the money making business private schools have thrived on. Most fail in this endeavour since it is extremely hard to get any decent professors for these universities and the provision of adequate facilities for these large projects eats into the profits these people earn. So, the hapless students, eager to benefit from this boom in higher education, are left at the mercy of substandard campuses and barely literate professors. Therefore, by the time these students graduate, they can hardly string together a sentence of idiomatic English and are not even proficient in any other language either. Despite a ‘degree’ in hand they are still unemployable.
I leave you with two simple thoughts on the Hyderabad university controversy. First, why not think of making Sindh University and Mehran University world-class universities? I spent a week at Sindh University during my PhD research, and having known some faculty members there, I can safely say that its standards are falling dramatically. Not only is the university rife with student politics of the most dangerous kind, students and faculty seem to have given up on each other. In my week there, I was working at the Institute of Sindhology, a very good research library, but I never saw more than two to three students enter it for reading a book. As a matter of fact, the librarian told me that he could not even get 30 signatures from students when he was trying to petition for longer opening hours. So, why not turn these universities, which already exist, around, and then enlarge them as needs expand?
Secondly, universities only come after good schooling. If students in schools are not taught how to think (and read and write), inculcating these concepts in university is too late. Before the establishment of new universities, we need a huge investment in creating good schools, as they form the backbone of a literate society.
With a very large school and university-going population, Pakistan really needs to set its priorities right, or else, soon it will be too late and the powers of ignorance and extremism will engulf us even further.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2013.
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