The papers and the sound bites in speeches tell us that our institutions are being modelled after the greatest learning institutions of the world. It is easy and perhaps convenient to name our favourite institution in Cambridge Massachusetts or California or the UK as the model, but we refuse to ask ourselves, how serious are we about our intent? Apart from the obvious concern of resources and the lack of a culture of appreciation of education, there are some very fundamental issues at the core that are rarely talked about. One such area is what do we demand from, and expect of, our faculty. Broadly speaking, recruitment of faculty at a higher education institution follows two basic models. In the first model, the idea is to build, foster and sustain research. The individual being recruited is attracted to the profession as it would give her or him the opportunity to pursue the research goals and the institution would support this pursuit. The individual may (and most often does) contribute to the educational mission of the institution as well, but research is very much a major thrust of the profession. A key component in science and engineering programmes is the presence of graduate students, who are often the foot soldiers in this grand research enterprise. Institutions that are often quoted as our role models fall into this category.
In the second model, the core mission of the institution is to teach undergraduate students, and research, while considered important and encouraged, is neither the central mission of the institution nor the major component of the faculty’s time. Instead, the bulk of the time of the faculty is engaged in teaching and learning. These institutions attract faculty members who are passionate about teaching, and while they almost always are outstanding researchers during their graduate work (and bring these ideas to the classroom), they see their contribution to society first and foremost, in the classroom. Institutions of exceptional repute such as Swarthmore, Amherst, Wellesley, Pomona and many others would fall into this category.
A key difference between the two models is not only what the goal of the institution is, but also what they ask of their faculty and expect from them. In Pakistan, unfortunately, we have developed an ad hoc model, which is often disingenuous. Let me explain. We tend to recruit faculty for the first model. We tell them that research is good for the country, we need their passion for change and that together we will create something extraordinary. All of these points are inherently true. However, the promise has nothing to do with the reality at our institutions. Upon joining the institution, the faculty find themselves inundated with a back-breaking teaching load, sometimes expected to teach up to three full courses a semester, with no help in the form of teaching assistants for grading. The graduate programme that would help with research in the lab does not exist. The faculty is then expected to conduct quality research and publish extensively in leading journals. While there can never be any justification, ever, for unethical behaviour and plagiarism, the system does not help in this circumstance either, simply because success is measured by research output, and teaching is neither incentivised, nor looked as a measure of real societal contribution.
The result of this fundamentally flawed model is not only a drained and exhausted faculty, but also poor teaching that fails to create the fundamental values of inquiry and curiosity. The frustration of the faculty is palpable, and in a lot of cases, justified. The students, having done nothing wrong, are often on the receiving end of this frustration. What is needed to fix the system is honesty on part of the institution. Institutions need to paint the true picture during recruitment and set reasonable goals for success and recruit only those who genuinely care about teaching. At the same time, institutions need to incentivise teaching and recognise this as a worthy contribution to shape society and not simply chase absurd metrics of success that have nothing to do with our ground realities. In the end, the success of our institutions will not come from misleading or ill-treating the very people who are tasked to create the future we desire.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2015.