Beyond degrees and skills

Beyond degrees and skills

Muhammad Zaheer May 31, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS


My younger brother — a computer science graduate — thinks that four years of university contributed little to his skill development and more to anxiety due to academic bullying by instructors and administration. So, he learned new skills through online courses and is a successful freelancer now. The youngster is not alone who overweighs skills over degrees; tens and hundreds of social media influencers and entrepreneurs preach the same. Resultantly there is an inclination of youth towards skill development and starting their own businesses. While both degrees and skills are essential, there is another critical aspect that has been ignored in the debate of degrees versus skills.

Syed Babar Ali (SBA) — the founder of LUMS and famous businessman and philanthropist — is the founder and member of the board of directors of several national companies. In every meeting with the faculty, he emphasises one thing only — the students’ character. SBA says that during hiring, he doesn’t care about the interviewee’s grades, university, or skills, but if one is honest, truthful, and trustworthy. I couldn’t remember a single meeting where he didn’t suggest focusing on the students’ personal grooming and character building.

SBA even suggests training students so they don’t cheat even without invigilation during the examination. I have tried it several times, and the results are pretty encouraging. In a recent course I taught, I took an honour pledge from the students to not use any unfair means in any type of exam. Simultaneously, I had prepared myself to find if the students cheated despite the pledge. To my surprise, over 99% didn’t cheat. Cheating in exams is one of the perks of online teaching for which limited workable solutions are available. But placing trust in the students and testing them on moral grounds was quite successful and rewarding.

I have observed university students leaving trash unattended after finishing their food, even when the nearby bin was at an arm’s length. Not giving way to others and not apologizing after accidentally hitting someone in a crowded place. Smoking in undesignated areas. These observations force me to think about why the most educated class of adults merely observes social norms or etiquettes.

During my four-year stay in Germany, I have found people honest, helping, trustworthy and truthful. I have never seen anybody honking on the road or running a traffic light. Cars stop at a zebra crossing or even at the road to let pedestrians cross first. I kept wondering why this nation is so well-mannered, characterful, and successful. I got the answer from kindergarten kids. Germany also has the mechanism of screening students for vocational schools and university after school.

My apartment’s only window opened to a kindergarten from where I had a chance to observe the activities there. For instance, kids were taught how to cut paper, drive the nail, cut woodblocks, and similar skills. Likewise, teachers used to take students on the road to teach them how to walk on the roadside and cross a road. There were no books, no uniforms, and kids sometimes stayed overnight to learn how to live independently and work as a team.

Focusing on skills and manners at this young age besides conventional education is perhaps the most successful way of producing a generation of socially responsible citizens. The school education that builds up the edifice of an individual’s life defines one’s character, morality, ideology, principles, and life skills required to lead a life besides adorning one’s career. The so-called terbiyat is missing in the current school education which used to be an integral part of taleem. Poor schooling cannot be made up, even by the best college education, and therefore should be worked on.


Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2021.

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