analysis: Phantom universities —Rasul Bakhsh Rais\05\27\story_27-5-2008_pg3_2

The death of academia has serious social and economic consequences for the poor and lower middle classes, as graduates of public universities are becoming increasingly less competitive compared to graduates of better-administered private universities

Our public universities have suffered a slow and painful death, while society, the media and political parties have remained passive observers. The social and political apathy towards higher education in Pakistan has marginalised the university and our academic environment.

No government — military or civilian — paid any serious or sustained attention to the deteriorating state of universities, their internal decay; and the withering away of the academic culture, which was never robust in the first place.

The university attracted official attention only as a source of trouble — gunfights among rival students groups; strikes by teachers; and general unrest, which required heavy deployment of police, closure of universities and evacuation of student hostels.

Once a truce was arranged among warring groups of teachers or students, or once teaching commenced after tempers cooled, the university slowly trudged back to its boring routine and tense balance.

The role of the vice chancellor has been reduced to one of conflict management and of maintaining a balance among rival cliques and armed student groups supported by political parties. Whatever little time and energy he is left with is spent attending scores of meetings and fighting small brushfires that may erupt anytime. Never is there any time for developing a fresh vision, new programmes or improving the quality of teaching and research.

Throughout history, both military regimes and civilian governments hardly focused on higher education with the objective of producing world-class graduates in the natural or social sciences. Nor did they think of higher education as an opportunity to train young men and women as leaders in vital areas of national life. Our ruling elites definitely lacked the vision that modernist elites in other comparable countries had.

Those in positions of political power preferred to send their daughters and sons to foreign universities. Or, perhaps, they realised the limitations and inadequacies of higher education in Pakistan, and instead of owning this vital sector they sadly abandoned it by taking the escape route to foreign universities. This trend has increased, and it is no longer confined to the upper classes.

Only the poor and lower middle class families send their sons and daughters to the country’s public universities. Class dynamics therefore strongly reflected in the multi-patterned educational system of Pakistan. Much like the physical and social segregation of the poor and rich in urban and rural living spaces, the Pakistani educational system has become another marker of difference between individuals and families.

It is not uncommon however to see disparities and differences in the characters of universities in a country, which might range from ordinary to outstanding, but all of them have some minimum standards, and acceptance in a university is always based on individual scholastic achievement, and never entirely on one’s class background.

The indifference of successive regimes towards public universities tells only one part of the tragic story of Pakistani academia. The universities’ faculty and student organisations affiliated with political and religious parties, and their administrations, bear equal responsibility for the slow death of Pakistani academia. Let me explain how individually and collectively they have damaged public university in Pakistan.

The faculty of a university is its core element. It has tremendous capacity to determine the direction, future growth, and quality of an institutional institution. The faculty in Pakistan’s public universities, for many complex reasons, has failed to play the role of visionaries, innovators or even role models. This failure lies in their inability to rise above narrow, personalised and petty issues. Consequently, they are divided into competing groups engaged in never-ending battles.

The most distinctive thing, if any, about academia is that it is a community of scholars who are in pursuit of knowledge, and the train young minds. Sadly, the Pakistani academia has yet to transform itself to such a community. Today, it is fractured and divided community.

In my opinion, it has lost its prestige, respect and standing in the eyes of students as well as Pakistani society. The university faculty does not value the tradition of dialogue, debate, or even intellectual tolerance. This has severely damaged the atmosphere of collegiality and intellectual bonding.

It is a sad reflection on our higher education sector that a minority of students affiliated with political and religious parties have captured the large academic space in universities and has succeeded in intimidating other students, faculty members and administrations. These students have been assisted in this enterprise by likeminded faculty members, who shamelessly use them for their own purposes.

Weak political will on part of the governments, timid administrations, divided faculty, and the immoral and illegal intrusion into universities by political parties have resulted in the rise of violent student factions that have taken universities hostage.

There has been no attempt to bring in new blood or change the old administrative systems of universities. They are over-bureaucratised, marred by administrative centralisation, and headed by lethargic, inept and unmotivated personnel. The vice chancellors have absolute dependence on the incompetent and out of touch administrative machinery. The public university continues to be poorly governed, unable to lift itself up.

The death of academia has serious social and economic consequences for the poor and lower middle classes, as graduates of public universities are becoming increasingly less competitive compared to graduates of better-administered private universities.

The academia of a country reflects its collective social progress in the arts and sciences. The current state of affairs does not instil any pride or even confidence in its ability to do better without the state, society and genuine academicians taking a lead in radically transforming it.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at This article is part of a series examining the education system of Pakistan

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