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Aliya Zaman

Access to quality higher education has always been a dream of thousands of young Pakistanis looking to build fruitful careers for themselves. It is an accepted fact that access to quality education is not a privilege; rather it’s the cornerstone of progress. Higher education is a guarantee of a bright future, as it enables individuals to realize their potential and contribute meaningfully to society. But despite its merits and the immense progress Pakistan has made in the higher education sector in the past two decades, quality university education remains a distant dream as evidenced by the recent rankings issued by Times Higher Education.
Higher education institutions have long promised to be the gateway to expertise in chosen fields, but it’s high time we asked ourselves a pressing question: Are universities truly delivering on their promise, or are they falling short, much like our government often does?
It has now been over twenty years since the creation of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), an organization which was set to revolutionize the education sector in Pakistan. While there have certainly been improvements in several areas, yet our dream of creating the IITs and IIMs of Pakistan, and other centres of excellence remains a pipedream. This is despite the fact that billions of dollars have been pumped into the field, the number of universities, both public and private has quadrupled, and there are now thousands with PhDs in the country (though an increasing number of them do not have jobs).
When the HEC was formed, its leaders wanted to improve numbers – of universities, those with PhDs, student enrolment in higher education, etc. While this was initially a good idea, decades later, the focus is still on numbers. Governments gauge their success not by the excellence of universities, but by the number of new universities they have chartered. The recent bonanza both in Punjab and in the federal parliament where several dozen university charters were bulldozed through is nothing new.
Such practices have been done piecemeal throughout the last two decades, as substandard colleges were raised to university level and dubious private organizations given charters. For a country which does not already spend enough on education the dilution of the already scarce resources in this way is simply criminal, and leads to still-born institutions.
Furthermore, our understanding of universities is deeply flawed. The simple yardstick of ‘creating knowledge’ has not been the benchmark of either the HEC or most university leaders in the country. The fixation with numbers has meant that the vast majority of scientists in our country produce papers which no one reads, do research where there is no original and creative work, and collaborate with random people only to go on junkets or waste money. In the social sciences and humanities, conditions are even worse, as the science and engineering focused yardstick of the HEC and other funding agencies means that they hardly get any funds to do any research and have to constantly justify their existence, let alone do any creative work.
This lack of focus on creating knowledge has led to the ‘departmental store chain’ mentality, where as long as some basics are ensured, a new institution is set up. This approach not only leads to substandard education for the students, but dilutes the critical mass of faculty needed for the further creation of knowledge.
The result of this twin focus on just numbers and the lack of a research culture creating knowledge will be catastrophic for our country. While it will continue to stifle the real development of universities, as most in the public sector would be competing for an ever-smaller share of resources, and faculty mass would be so diluted as to make real research impossible, the real losers will be our young people. With two-thirds of our population under the age of 35, and with over a million in higher education, we are simply perpetuating a fraud upon them through this system of education.
We are giving them a useless piece of paper masked as a degree, providing them with a false sense of security that they are now ‘graduates’, and are setting them up for not only disappointment but resentment in later life where they will suffer the consequences of this substandard education.
These ‘half-educated’ people will be bad for themselves and their country, and will give rise to more social tensions, strife and uncertainty. Certainly, not educating people to a higher degree level is preferable to the creation of a whole generation of half-educated people. With such a proliferation of universities, and an ever-increasing number of enrolments, time is fast running out to fix the situation, else it will lead to the ruin of all.

The writer is a student at QAU, Islamabad.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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