Learning from Heidelberg

No research should be required for promotion but student and peer-group evaluation of teaching is necessary.

Dr Tariq Rahman July 21, 2013

The charter of the University of Heidelberg starts with the following words in Latin: “Rupert 1, Count Palatine on the Rhine, Elector of the Holy Roman Empire and Duke in Bavaria.” It goes on to ordain that a school of higher learning, on the model of the University of Paris, be established. Pope Urban VI gave his approval on October 23, 1385 and the first classes began on October 18, 1386. This was Germany’s first university and Europe’s fifth: Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge being the first four. While the old city (Altstadt) still has its towering castle (Schloss) and the paved streets through which monkish figures must have hurried to theology lessons in the 14th century, the modern university has a new campus as well. It has 3.09 million books, 490,000 microforms, 6,800 manuscripts and 80,730 e-journals in its various libraries. Can we learn anything from the German model of the university of which Heidelberg is an outstanding example?

The Pakistani university was based on the colonial model meant to educate Indians to become junior partners in the business of running the empire. This meant that the function of the Indian university was to teach — disseminate existing research — and not to create new knowledge. The Indian academics were not supposed to be great scientists or scholars, they were meant to be lecturers; i.e., teachers at the college level. The greatest brain drain upon the colonial university was the colonial civil service, which attracted the best brains thus making them supporters of the establishment forever. The colonial university was also under-funded since most of the money had to go to support profits to be sent home or for the army and the civil service. So, what we inherited in 1947 were teaching universities and that, too, of an inferior kind.

Meanwhile, what happened to the university in Germany? Here, Wilhelm von Humboldt convinced the rulers to establish the research university. This was based upon the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who believed in academic freedom and research by students and faculty. Here, the professor was given much social prestige and also a decent living, which attracted intellectuals. Professorial chairs were given to outstanding scholars, who had published in their field. Even now, one becomes a professor in the German system by first completing his or her doctorate and then habilitation — something like a second doctorate — and even so, not everyone actually gets a chair. But once you do get it, you have both prestige and money. You control a department, determine what kind of research projects will be funded, hire people as your assistants and so on. You are given a lot of autonomy and you cannot be removed from your post unless you commit some grave criminal offence. Professors decide their timings of work though they do take courses and more than their counterparts in some of the best British and American universities (about nine hours than six hours a week in the best Anglo-Saxon universities). This is the beginning of the research university, which is why historians of higher education have quipped that “the dons of Oxford and Cambridge were keeping school while Germany had universities”. The German professor was not a teacher; he was a specialist — a producer of ideas, not merely the disseminator of the ideas of others. But, of course, he did lecture and he supervised research. So, can we establish research universities in Pakistan? I think we can and we should, while allowing our present universities to keep functioning as “teaching universities” and our colleges, which gain university status as “university colleges”.

I am sure we have enough highly published scholars and scientists to create one university. This university should have every subject under the sun and it should be so funded by the state that student fees should not matter. Its faculties may be the hard sciences, the applied sciences, the social sciences and arts and humanities. And within these four faculties, we can have every subject imaginable. As for the academics, we can attract the best minds by giving upscale market salaries, autonomy, academic freedom, prestige, research grants, sabbatical leave and a very easy workload (not more than six hours a week but reducible to three). Moreover, choice of time of work and no compulsory daily attendance, as are normal in many universities for professors, should be guaranteed to the whole faculty. Faculty should be evaluated by their research production, citations to their work, papers in conferences and so on. They need not be evaluated for their lectures by their students if they do not so desire, nor by anybody else, since that may reduce their prestige. However, research would be rigorously evaluated. The research university should be independent, choosing its own curricula and method of evaluation.

Below the research university should be the ordinary teaching university. Our present-day universities all come in this category. These need to follow the rules set from time to time by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), which needs to have control over their standards. The faculty need not be paid as high as the research universities but the present salaries need not be reduced. Their promotion should be dependent on some research but also on evaluation by students or peers as they desire. Lowest in the hierarchy are the university colleges, which is the status of places called “universities” on political demand in small cities. These should be completely in control of the HEC, which may set up a board to conduct examinations since these institutions sometimes do not even teach the basics of a subject but give the degree in it anyway. The faculty need not be paid salaries higher than they are at present under the BPS system. No research should be required for promotion but student and peer-group evaluation of teaching is necessary.

If we establish research universities, we will not spread the taxpayers’ money too thin, while ensuring that our best minds are attracted to research and the academic life.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd,  2013.

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