My last article stirred Old Ravians on the issue of college universities. Calling from all over the country, they kept my phone busy to share or discount my worry about the future of GCU, Lahore. All I can say is, that being an Old Ravian myself, I continue to be worried. Many asked: what about the old private colleges which have become universities? I had a short stint at the Forman Christian College University (FCCU), Lahore last year. Here is what I experienced.
The rector of the FCCU asked me to join as professor and head of the economics department, saying he could do with some good professionals. I only wanted to teach and was reluctant to become head, but the committee I met with subsequently impressed upon me that the department required leadership and reform, for which headship was essential. So there I was, with a brief to reform. The first thing that struck me was that despite boasting four PhDs, there was no PhD programme (the GCU economics department has two PhDs and runs a PhD programme under a non-PhD assistant professor in clear violation of HEC requirements). I thought this was good for the baccalaureate degree, now a much more intensive four-year programme. An MPhil in applied economics had been announced, and a group of students already admitted and the courses decided.
With these “givens”, the only way to add value was to ensure better course content and its effective delivery. With the number of PhDs on the faculty going up to six, it was possible to ensure that only PhDs taught at the MPhil level. I was, however, horrified when I looked at the course contents prepared by the faculty. There was nothing applied about the content of these courses. The trouble with teaching economics in Pakistan is that it does not do justice to the country’s economy. I thought the MPhil in applied economics should have the economy of Pakistan as its main focus. For example, the course on macroeconomics should apply its tools to make students understand how Pakistan’s macroeconomy works or fails to work. Similarly, the course on microeconomics should teach a thing or two about the sugar and cement cartels, energy pricing and regulatory authorities. What had been done was to add 2-3 advanced topics to the stock-in-trade theoretical courses the faculty had been used to teaching at junior levels. In the same tradition, the economy of Pakistan was relegated to one stand-alone course called ‘Issues in Pakistan’s economy’.
My attempts at reorienting and restructuring these courses led to resistance from the faculty in all sorts of ways. The attempt to delegate departmental responsibilities was misinterpreted as shirking my own responsibility. Teachers asked to prepare an applied course in their own area of PhD research were reluctant to do so. Students, admitted by the faculty in proportion to informally applied personal quotas, were encouraged to lodge frivolous complaints to the management. The dean, a self-styled management guru asked me pointedly about the nature of my “relationship” with an associate professor. Eventually, the rector called me in his office and said that entire faculty was up in arms against me. No academic issues were raised. This missionary from the US was also worried about my “relationship” with the same associate professor. Instead of feeling embarrassed on being told that the associate professor in question was my wife, he changed gear to pointing out the conflict of interest in supervising my own wife. Remember I had not wanted to be the head in the first place. I left in sheer disgust. The contract of my wife was not renewed either; a fit case of sexual harassment at workplace in a so-called liberal arts college.
The moral of the story is that higher fees, fat salaries and private management do not necessarily improve the delivery of education.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2010.