The ‘Pakistans’ of pre- and post- May 11 have somehow become two separate entities. In pre-May 11 Pakistan, there was a discussion, although at times hollow, but nonetheless a discussion on innovation, research and above all higher education. Most parties had discussed some aspects of higher education in their mandates and promised an increased investment and broad support. In the post-May 11 Pakistan, discussion of higher education, as a tool for nation-building, has all but disappeared from national discourse.
Let’s start with the custodians of higher education. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) is suffering. Without any permanent leadership, its voice has been muted. Worse still, we do not even know if it resides in the federal government or the provinces. The inter-provincial bickering on the future of the HEC is mired with distrust and suspicions and is, perhaps, the only discussion on higher education at the moment in the country. While it remains unclear whether the HEC resides with the federal government or not, higher education certainly does not reside in the hearts of our politicians.
It would be one thing if the only thing that needed fixing with higher education in Pakistan was the HEC, its leadership and its future home. The problem, unfortunately, is much bigger than that. Pakistan’s crises are much bigger than the sum of blocking Nato supplies and a power shortfall. There are many other problems lurking in the shadows that threaten to deny us a better future. Rampant poverty, an alarming rate of maternal and child mortality, our inability to contain diseases that the rest of the world has been able to eradicate — all deserve serious and immediate attention. Ironically, many of these are addressed through a better, more informed workforce and a stronger national capacity, which is an outcome of a robust higher education system.
The current governments, both in the federal capital and in the provinces, have made it clear what their priorities are. Unfortunately, most of them are associated with short-term solutions or sickening political posturing. The long-term investment in our human capital through improved and sustained quality of higher education is not on the agenda.
We have to ask ourselves some tough questions. The politicians and their favourite media pundits continue to talk about Pakistan’s future and its position in the greater region and the world. Those who are more optimistic also talk about the promise of our youth and the potential of our human capital. Yet, there is little action, if any, to channel these human resources. What more could be a sign of a diseased political system, if the mere discussion of investment in higher education polarises our politicians? Higher education is supposed to be a great equaliser and the grand unifier of all political stripes, the guaranteed ticket for social mobility and a high-return investment for a better future.
We have somehow convinced ourselves that once we fix our energy and security issues, we can then pay attention to education, health, poverty alleviation, human development and the like. I wish it worked that way. It does not. Firstly, fixing security and energy is not going to happen overnight, irrespective of promises made in pre-election Pakistan. More importantly, governance and planning is more than just about solving one problem; it is about setting the nation on a course for a better tomorrow.
Improving our national capacity, through improved higher education, to solve the challenges of society cannot wait. We may agree or disagree on the role of the HEC in the federal government, but we cannot remain indifferent to the role of higher education in society.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 18th, 2013.