For over 30 years, I have been engaging with graduate historians from Pakistan.
Some have been students, who have come to work with me for a PhD or DPhil, in the universities of London or Oxford. Some have been scholars already in post in Pakistan’s universities, who have been funded by the excellent Higher Education Commission (HEC) scheme, which enables university staff to develop their research skills.
A few already have PhDs, but many do not; they come for periods of three, six or 12 months. Others, I have encountered as the international external examiner of their PhD dissertation submitted to a Pakistan university.
I regret to say that with a few honourable exceptions, the English of this PhD work is poor, and on occasion, unacceptable.
There will be sentences without main verbs; with poor punctuation; sentences which contradict the meaning of what has gone before; words incorrectly used; a general failure to understand the use of the definite and indefinite article; and a general inability to carry an idea from sentence to sentence through a paragraph.
The outcome is language through which meaning can often only hazily be discerned. Sometimes it cannot be discerned at all.
The object of a PhD dissertation is for the candidate to be able to demonstrate that he/she commands a field or sub-field of knowledge and is able, by doing research in primary sources, to contribute to that field with new ideas and/or new facts.
These contributions will generally be made in the framework of an argument that creates an overall context in which these contributions can be understood. Command of English and its niceties is essential to be able to achieve this end.
If the student cannot use language to express meaning clearly, the exercise is meaningless.
When I have remonstrated with students about the quality of their English, one response has been of surprise. “But Sir,” they say, “how could this be? I was taught at school and at university in English and I teach in English myself.”
They do not even know that there is a problem. In this case, I really do wonder what their students actually understand.
It would appear that weakness in English has become a self-reinforcing process. If my history PhDs are representative of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, this weakness must surely undermine the quality of intellectual discourse and public debate carried out in that language.
What should be done to address this problem? First, the HEC might like to consider making a good standard in English, a requirement for obtaining a post in a university History department.
An overall score of seven in IELTS (International English Language Testing System), which is the standard which many English universities require for PhD entry, would be a starting point, although it is not a perfect standard as some of my experiences have revealed.
Second, English language support units might be established in all universities to enable staff and students to reach a real working standard in the language.
Thirdly, those administering postgraduate degrees must be willing to take examiners’ criticism of English standards seriously. When examining, I ask what standards I should apply. The response is usually “those of your university”.
When I do so, I find on occasion that on grounds of English alone, the student should fail. However, my voice is just one of several. I have a strong suspicion that I am ignored. While this is the case, standards will not improve.
I am full of sympathy for those who have to write a major piece of work in what may be their second language. If I had to do this in Urdu, I would not do well. On the other hand, colonialism has left Pakistan with the legacy of English, which presents both difficulties and opportunities.
As Pakistan has decided to adopt English in its higher education system, more needs to be done to make sure that teachers and students are fully equipped to make use of the opportunities English offers.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2013.