What should a modern university look like?

Imagine a new university being planned in Pakistan


Naveed Iftikhar December 08, 2016
The writer is a public policy researcher and practitioner. He tweets @naveediftikhar1

Imagine a new university being planned in Pakistan. Starting point will be the allocation of vast land somewhere far outside of a city. Investment planning shall be undertaken for physical infrastructure and landscaping. Isolated buildings of academic departments would be constructed. There will be least thinking about the quality of faculty, research activities and improvement of teaching-learning environment. Curriculum and standard operating procedures from other universities will be adopted with some tinkering. Administration would be making academic decisions since the beginning. It particularly holds true for Pakistan but remains so for many other parts of the world as well.

This rotten style of establishing a university and functioning afterwards, indeed has hampered quality and relevance of teaching and research output in multiple ways. I always wonder why a university cannot be established in the high-rise buildings in the middle of a city where faculty and students can approach easily and remain connected to people and places around themselves. Mixed occupancy of such building can enhance the richness of research and learning. Due to urban proliferation, some of the universities have now become part of the cities but they are still isolated from the communities and socio-economic dynamics around them, as they were established farther at some point in time.

The design of physical structure and interaction have a profound impact on behaviours and performance and it is rarely considered while planning universities. Model of isolated departments in the universities has indeed produced academic silos. There is least interdisciplinary interaction amongst scholars of various disciplines. Everyone in academia talks about it like a political slogan but hardly a few embark on it.

Some universities in the US are establishing buildings which host private companies, corporate research centres, and academic disciplines at the same place. Occupants interact with each other on daily basis and try to resolve emerging managerial and technological problems together. Teaching hospitals have been practicing similar model for a long time. But it is not ubiquitous. Recently, I got a chance to visit several universities in the US and I found little interdisciplinary interactions. PhD students, for example, from economics, sociology, engineering, geography, psychology, public policy, anthropology, history, political science, and law among other have met rarely with each other in the both formal and informal settings. Many of them are indeed ignorant about research being conducted in the department next door even if it is very close to their own area of interest. The academic environment does not encourage them to interact across the disciplines and departments. Social and economic problems of today’s world are not as isolated or clearly demarcated as our academic disciplines have become. Social science enterprise needs a complete overhaul to address such issues. In many cases, even scientific research is constrained due to a lack of cognisance of its social underpinnings.

MIT’s Building 20 remained a classic example of research and innovation through interdisciplinary interaction until its demise in 1998. A dilapidated building raised out of emergency of Second World War research projects and later absorbing an influx of veterans enrolled in the university, indeed produced high value research and inventions. The building’s infrastructure was worst at its best but it’s hotchpotch design enhanced interdisciplinary interactions among scholars which produced amazing results. Another lesson was that sophisticated buildings least matter for research and innovation — it’s the quality of human resource and their interaction that make a difference.

There are many developments in the technological and social domains which are awaiting response by the universities in Pakistan and other parts of the world. But academia and policy makers are responding very slowly. Massive Open Online Courses and other such educational innovations can spread education at an affordable cost. Moreover, in the digital world, why a student enrolled in one university should be deprived of attending a lecture from a top-notch professor in his/her field teaching in another university in same or other country.

Undergraduate degree programs hardly concentrate on skill set for the job market. While graduate students in universities of Pakistan are often engaged in poor quality research of so-called global problems but they seldom bother to research the economy and society alongside the high walls of the university. Two questions are important here; how many economics departments of universities in Lahore offer the course on “Economy of the city of Lahore”. How many universities offer the public to access their libraries? Majority of the universities in Pakistan do not have teaching and research exchange programs with each other, not to mention foreign universities.

Among the political leadership, Minister Ahsan Iqbal has been trying to engage national and international academia. It is the right time that he should steer such transformation in Pakistani universities in partnership with the provincial governments. We often blame resource constraints but it’s indeed a matter of priority and commitment. Many Pakistanis have reached at the top faculty positions in the universities in developed world. They can contribute in this process. They may not need hefty remunerations but respect and independence in research pursuits.

I could broadly sketch few emerging challenges that need to be confronted by a university to call itself modern. However, the issue needs an in-depth dialogue which is missing in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (4)

Lahori | 4 years ago | Reply @observer. There is a lot more in the article other than architectural dimension. Interdisciplinary research and interaction, quality of faculty, engagement with cities and communities, independence of research, and dialogue on higher education are some of the important messages which need to be paid attention by the ruling regime.
ali | 4 years ago | Reply very well said by the writer... yes we need to change the mind set sooner before its tooo late...
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