Reports in a section of the press inform that a Higher Education Vision 2025 is about to be announced. The main Vision 2025 document launched earlier contained a set of targets and the purpose of the latest exercise seems to be to flesh out the barebones. Setting physical and financial targets is the easy part. To avoid routine incrementalism, serious attention has to be paid to the analytic bone-structure.
Take the case of the mushroom growth of universities. These now number 180. Those announced or under construction are in addition. Very few, if any, were established as part of a strategic plan or in pursuit of a directional change. None can boast of a decent feasibility study. In the public sector, what happens is that an announcement is made on ‘great public demand’, a PC-I is prepared hastily and token money allocated in the development budget. In the absence of a PC-II relating to feasibility, the construction moves in fits and starts, depending on the political weight of the players. Anything goes here — single subject universities that eventually try to expand into unintended directions, upgrading of colleges and mindless conversion of hospitals and workshops into universities. Some, set up with the laudable objective of accommodating un-served regions, have turned to establishing sub-campuses in the well-served cities. Barring some well-known names, the growth of private sector universities is linked to the declining profitability of the alternative investments. In the garb of creating more choices in higher education, many in fact are tax havens of an unreachable variety. Full page ads of universities in major newspapers outnumber other businesses by a wide margin.
A university is nothing but its faculty. However, brick and mortar precedes the building of faculty. Salary structure and incentives for teachers have improved more than the quality of teaching and research. Quality enhancement cells are, literally, a matter of forms than substance. Academic-industrial linkages have not taken off. The few universities with good faculty do not offer postgraduate programmes as the faculty finds it more lucrative to engage in donor funded research directly or in partnership with government. Obviously, the donors set the research agenda. Others with rag-tag faculty offer all kinds of postgraduate programmes. This generates profits for the universities concerned and fake journals and, more ominously, a spurious knowledge force that in time don faculty and other positions in society. To maximise profits, private universities avoid recruiting high-paid quality faculty. Three locally produced junior faculty for the price of one quality teacher, is their guiding principle. In public sector, positions are advertised with applicants required to submit kilos of hard copies of documents along with a significant amount of fee. However, a random look at any of these universities will reveal a long list of unfilled senior positions. The outcome of such practices was there for all to see in the damning report of the Federal Public Service Commission on the quality of candidates appearing for the CSS examination. A new class of semi-public universities, controlled by the retirees of the services, treats the faculty as second class citizens, unless it is one of their own. The last-mentioned is produced by registering for higher degrees in the same universities, secured by exploiting the marginalised faculty.
The main Vision 2025 document rightly talked of increasing “investment significantly in human resources (software) at the higher education level.” In the past three years, this is reflected neither in allocations, nor in outcomes. For example, the current agricultural crisis bears testimony to the failure to develop the software in agricultural universities. The proposed strategic plan should prioritise software over the target of establishing a university in each district. The objective is quality teaching and research, not higher education for all. Universalisation is better left to primary education and health.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2016.