The only conversation we have on higher education is about the rapidly failing systems, and little about turning the corner. While there is good reason to criticise the current state of higher education, the picture is more complex than what may appear on the surface. The problem, as many would like to believe, is not just an incompetent governance structure, but instead it is rooted in lack of a model that is able to account for new competitions and our social dynamics.
Over the last two months, I have had the opportunity of interacting with several university administrators across the country and I asked each of them about their single biggest challenge. The biggest challenge, according to them, was not the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) inability to keep its promises. The single biggest challenge, much to my surprise, was the lack of human resources. According to these administrators who ranged from department chairs to deans to vice-chancellors, there are just not enough qualified people who enter the system as faculty, and many who enter leave within the first five years. With new competition coming from institutions mushrooming in the Middle East, many of our faculty ends up at those institutions even if the student quality may be far inferior to that of our own students.
Competition is not a bad thing, but not doing anything when there is new competition is hardly the recipe for long-term success. Not having any strategy is currently our national strategy.
During many conversations, three main issues emerged that require us to broadly rethink what our strategy needs to be and to think about what we can do to retain those who join in the first place. First, there is a substantial disconnect between administrative leadership and promising faculty members and aspiring faculty members (such as graduate students and post-docs). As I pointed out last week, there is no mechanism for constructive and regular mentorship. This is in part due to lack of organised structures by the universities, and also in part by complete lack of diversity among our senior leadership. In my interactions, in person and on the phone or emails, I did not meet a single woman leader, despite the fact that many institutions have incredibly talented female students who outperform men in every single performance indicator. Many of our university leaders are unable to connect with our talent pool because of age or gender, and hence are not able to provide mentorship for career development or appreciate the challenges faced by younger colleagues. While finances may be a factor for many to leave Pakistan, many more will stay if they are engaged and not left to sink or swim in unpredictable and treacherous waters of national higher education.
This takes me to the second point. We have to accept the new realities of higher education in Pakistan, where the HEC will no longer be the sole benefactor of institutions. Given this reality, a new model needs to emerge that also engages the private sector in both fundraising and in research engagement. I was shocked to hear that other than having an occasional meeting that is no more than a gathering of an old boys’ club, universities never reach out to their alumni. With the exception of a couple of private universities, most do not even have structured alumni or development offices. Equally, alumni have no idea about what is going on in their institutions and have no reason to stay connected or feel any familial bond.
The third point is about the lack of focus on solving our own problems. Faculty will feel empowered and accomplished if there are ways, beyond personal passion, to impact society in a direct way. There is no incentive, financial or professional, to work on our own problems. Whatever solutions we have, come from the culture of ‘jugaar’ and not of rigorous inquiry.
There should be no doubt about the value of higher education; that debate has been addressed by every single country that has climbed up the development ladder. The only question to ask is what is the Pakistani model, enriched by our own social and geopolitical realities, that can deliver.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th, 2015.