What happened to higher education?

Published: December 18, 2013

The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

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.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Liaqat Shabbir
    Dec 18, 2013 - 1:15AM

    I have a suspicion that HEC will soon have a new chairman. I think I even know who it is. Former LUMS VC Dr. Adil Najam is back in Islamabad recently and has been seen with Sartaj Aziz and Ahsan Iqbal recently. I hear he had refused the job earlier when he was offered but maybe he will agree this time.

    But secretly I hope he will say no again. He is a real serious scholar and would be too waste to turn a scholar into a babu.

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  • Basit
    Dec 18, 2013 - 2:32AM

    Sir, the problem is that all of us view the problems from our own perspective. You, as a higher educationist, believe that spending funding on university education wil solve most of our problems. I, as associated with secondary education, believe that key to our progress is having an informed public with solid basic education and govt should focus most of its energies on primary and secondary education. Just like in the west, public’s right is up to secondary education and the rest is the topping so to speak. Basic education coupled with work opportunities for the educated unemployed youth is our answer rather than full focus on higher education so that our youth, after getting higher degrees, can fly away just like they have been doing.

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  • Rehan
    Dec 18, 2013 - 2:58AM

    PM has not said anything, anything at all, about higher education even once. Sad! Really sad!

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  • x
    Dec 18, 2013 - 6:13AM

    Namal college’s first batch recently graduated which shows at least one politician is doing his philanthropic work regarding higher education. Also, PTI’s education city in KPK has sparked a lot of interest among foreign universities and this seems to be a very well thought out, promising enterprise. Security situation and law and order will also need to be improved to ensure that the education city remains a center of excellence in learning not marred by security threats or hooligan student political parties.

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  • Goraya
    Dec 18, 2013 - 10:49AM

    Wishful thinking that Prof Najam will take over HEC. I heard him speak last week at sdpi and there was no indication. I am surprised he is still positive on Pakistan after how we have treated him. Leading HEC is just full if disgrace and I dont see him accepting.

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  • Ali
    Dec 18, 2013 - 5:58PM

    Although Prof Najam is well respected in his area of expertise, somebody with a physical sciences/mathematics/engineering background needs to take the helm.

    The social sciences will not aid Pakistan’s development in any significant way. They are great if you live in a developed country but in a developing country you will get the best return for your investment by investing in productive disciplines such as engineering etc.

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  • Rumormonger
    Dec 18, 2013 - 8:26PM

    Higher education has seen such an anti-climax in Pakistan. The public sector universities will not see those hey days again I am convinced. No political government will fund higher education through HEC.

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  • Dec 18, 2013 - 10:42PM

    Before Higher education there should be a lower education too.Recommend

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