A wish list for HEC

The disastrous policy is akin to a parent ranking his or her own children

Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 20, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The Higher Education Commission, the custodian of our national higher education, is in the midst of a leadership transition. For the first time, the responsibility to choose the new leader is not in the hand of a minister who is unlikely to know anything about higher education, or a bureaucrat with similar credentials. The committee this time is composed of those who have a rich understanding of university education, public policy, economics and the national education sector. Kudos to the government on this step in letting the experts guide the process, and I hope this will create a precedence of choosing expert committees for national leadership positions.

As I was thinking about higher education in the country, where we are and where we ought to go, I came up with a wish list of what the committee should emphasise in looking for the next leader. While these issues, which I discuss below, are considered staple in other higher education systems, unfortunately they have historically been ignored in our system.

Diversity: Over half of our student population is female and there is strong evidence to show that there is systematic bias and widespread harassment at our institutions. Misogyny is rampant in our universities, and is part of our social fabric. In high schools, girls outperform boys and while the incoming university population may largely be female, the pipeline for female faculty and scholars remains weak. No country can make strides in higher education if over half of its student population is treated unfairly. The HEC needs to work on policies that prioritise inclusion, respect and encouragement to all. It needs to take strong and systematic actions to ensure that our female student and scholar population thrives. A strong leader who has a demonstrated commitment to gender equity and inclusion is what the HEC needs right now. A strong female leader of the HEC would be a phenomenal role model for so many young scholars and send a strong signal to everyone about the commitment to gender equity and inclusion.

Beyond science and technology: The HEC is neither a commission for only science education nor an institution for IT alone. Scholars in social sciences and humanities often feel marginalised and complain about the biases against them. The country does not need robots, but instead it desperately needs those who are able to engage with complex issues, think critically, are broadly trained and capable of rich analysis beyond a single domain in science or technology. That means we need scholars in all fields, not just in the sciences. The next leader does not need to come from science or technology, but should be someone who has a much broader perspective on what higher education can do to address our deeply-rooted challenges.

Vision vs experience: A typical criterion for our leadership position is experience. While that is understandable, it basically means someone who has grey hair and has spent a lot of time in the system. It makes no mention of vision or aspiration. What the institution needs is someone who has a bold vision, a set of transformative ideas, the ability to take risks and inspire our students, scholars, teachers and policymakers.

Quality beyond metrics: One of the most ill-thought exercise the HEC has embarked upon is to rank the national institutions; the very same ones that it supports. This disastrous policy is akin to a parent ranking his or her own children. The ranking methods are dubious and the HEC has no business in engaging in such a bizarre activity. Similarly, in other areas the emphasis continues to be on metrics (number of papers published, etc.) and not on quality. These things, while can still be measured, but are by no means an indication of success. Success will come from emphasis on quality, behaviour change, policy recommendations and creating a culture of inquiry and critical thinking. Many of these simply cannot be measured by a single digit. The new chairperson needs to focus on the quality of the overall system, and not a mere number to define success.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2018.

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