The disconnected university

Pakistani universities have failed to enable students to understand the complex problems of our time


Muhammad Hamid Zaman November 23, 2015
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The fundamental mission of a modern university is two-fold. First is to disseminate knowledge in a safe and enabling environment and the second is to engage in creation of knowledge through research. Some leading universities in many parts of the world have also added the role of creation of intellectual property and sustainability as their core missions, but let us focus on the first two here. Presumably, these are also the same missions of most (if not all) Pakistani universities. That is, to provide good education and when possible, to engage in quality research. But the vision and the mission cannot operate in an abstract environment or a vacuum. The engagement of both knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination has to have a societal connection that is an active component of the overall educational programme. Universities need to ensure that their graduates are equipped with intellectual tools to deal with complex social, technical, ethical and economic problems of society regardless of their majors. This requires not only rigour in training but also appreciating context and developing awareness. This gap in our institutional training, in creating rigorous programmes that do not enable students to understand and appreciate complex problems of our time continues to severely limit the potential of students when they become part of the national workforce.

Nowhere is this problem more acute than in our engineering programmes. The societal context is absent and the courses that aim to engage the intellect of students are anything but engaging. Discussion of approaches to tackle national challenges is sorely missing and connection with the current context is nowhere to be found. This lack of integration of the curriculum with the current social challenges is further complicated by the territorial nature of the disciplines, where intellectual disciplines are carved in stone.

Let me illustrate our challenges by a simple example. Assume that the institution in question happens to be in a major city — Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Rawalpindi etc. In all of these cities, there are enormous challenges in urban public health. Access to quality care, the continuously declining state of medical infrastructure, lack of improved diagnosis in poor parts of the city are all problems that drain resources and create toxic levels of social injustice. But how often do our engineering students get to study these problems? Or even think about them in the classroom? How often do classes in mathematics use these problems to illustrate the potential of quantitative modelling and debate potential solutions? The answer is almost never. The outcome is that we not only lose the chance to motivate our students to solve our complex problems, but we also miss out on a golden opportunity for rigorous debate in the classrooms that can lead to improved solutions. We are all the poorer for that.

The typical argument given against bringing more societal context into engineering and science classes is associated with rigour. Some would argue that bringing more ‘real world’ examples somehow takes away from the focus on depth. This argument actually reflects poor teaching practices and lack of capacity and innovation of the instructor. If the instructor is beholden to the syllabus, and is unable to use real-world challenges to motivate and illustrate the subject, he/she is fundamentally incapable of teaching that class.

The problem, however, does not rest just with the instructors alone. It also rests with those who set the university vision and mission. There has to be a clear emphasis on societal engagement, in not only social science and humanities courses, but equally in the sciences and engineering courses. Without compromising the rigour and fundamental concepts, the university must require its curriculum to reflect the current social challenges and incentivise teaching practices that enable students to engage with complex local challenges.

Ultimately, the impact of the university cannot and should not be measured in an instant, or perhaps even in the lifetime of its leadership. In a world obsessed with instant gratification, universities must represent the long-term vision of sustainable societal improvement even if it takes a long time. While the long-term vision may take a while to materialise, the disconnect between knowledge and societal context needs to be addressed immediately.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th,  2015.

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COMMENTS (4)

AQ | 7 years ago | Reply @University wala : The only vision of private universities to earn more and more money. :)
university wala | 7 years ago | Reply This is actually where the disconnect starts - there is no vision. Ask any university VC - what is your vision and you will not get a coherent answer.
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