The ultimate purpose of formal education, especially higher education, is not just to be more informed or to acquire a formal certificate, or a degree. One of its main purposes is to help address the contemporary questions and the issues, by mastering part of the previously-acquired knowledge and skills and use it to formulate new ideas and solutions. Educational institutions, not in sync with this idea, function merely as enterprises benefiting the ones involved, at the expense of taxpayers or their customers. Instead of generating seekers of knowledge who could provide creative solutions for society’s problems, the end product of these institutions is individuals with paper degrees in hand and expectations; in fact, frequently a demand that society should provide them lucrative employment. To facilitate this vicious self-serving cycle, the policymakers — at the behest of the leadership of these institutions — fashion policies to create more and more employment positions of the same kind, in a way perpetually expanding the society’s financial burden.
A lot has been said and written about the problems of religious institutions or madrassas in Pakistan, which is a related and extremely important but a somewhat different subject. Not enough is said and especially known to the funding party, i.e. the taxpayers, about the fundamental issues affecting the public higher education institutions. During the last few decades, some of the best-funded institutions barely have anything to show, with more than a throng of degree-holders looking for jobs.
There has been some silver lining: a few, especially private institutions, took a different and time-tested approach, and are successful in generating scholars who look for or create opportunities to make a positive and productive impact on society instead of just looking for jobs. On the other hand, many private institutions which did not take the appropriate path have not been able to make such an impact and are no different from the public sector.
This problem is national and not localised to any particular province. In fact, in relative terms, the best-funded research institutions have produced the same results as any other ones. They are just being marketed and presented differently, in a manner that they really are not. Their researchers have been doing work whose ultimate goal has been to publish a paper, in reality for self-promotion, and which was mostly irrelevant to the needs of society around them.
Even in affluent countries, a part of the research funding goes to the so-called “pure” science, but most of the research is targeted, and policy-driven. The funding agencies follow a particular direction or a mission, to help solve the society’s problems which typically leads to creation of new enterprises that provide employment and affluence. In every such case, a good return-on-investment is expected. In Pakistani research institutions in the public sector, the approach taken has been starkly different and shortsighted, if not misguided. No wonder, the results have been disappointing.
As time is passing, and talking in terms of science and technology development, it seems to be passing quicker than ever, the intellectual distance between societies with higher intellect, who would continue to lead versus others, is increasing at a rapid pace. Muslims are trailing behind and even among the Muslim countries, Pakistan is nowhere in the lead. A change of course and leadership is urgently warranted. Similar to politics, it would be foolish to expect from the same people who keep coming back with the same ideas, to make a realistic positive change.
It is very important to increase awareness within society, especially within the taxpayers, about where and how the money for higher education is spent. It is important to target efforts in a direction most appropriate to resolve local challenges, to increase entrepreneurship and for the strategic long-term benefit of the country. In a country like Pakistan, at this particular stage, research for the sake of just research is a luxury and only a small part of public funding should be allotted to it. Most of it should go to, what we may call, the applied research. It is also very important to promote private research funding, by industry or by philanthropy, to address the issues affecting society, which would not only tremendously help increase awareness, but also accountability of this effort in society as a whole.
A cultural shift within educational institutions is needed to promote merit and ethical principles. A large-scale cultural change within academic institutions is already taking place all over the globe to mitigate discrimination and unethical behaviour based upon gender or seniority. Pakistan has to follow the same principles. It is a common experience of expatriate Pakistani researchers that there is a tremendous lack of scientific professionalism if one tries to collaborate with researchers in Pakistan. This experience is starkly different when dealing with researchers in South Korea, Singapore or even India. The root cause of all this, in my opinion, is inept leadership, wrong priorities and erroneous policies. All this has to change.
Higher education institutions are, in fact, the engines of intellectual and fiscal progress of any society. Adjustment at this level would impact and benefit every part of society while lack of adjustment would also affect everyone, only negatively. The purpose of this note is to raise awareness about this critical issue and to convince people in control to reflect, and help make appropriate changes in due course.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2019.
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