Pakistan’s education fiasco - Dr Muzaffar Iqbal - Friday, April 29, 2011

Pakistan’s education fiasco has landmarks and watersheds: (i) The overnight nationalisation of private schools in 1972; (ii) the short-lived and ill-conceived experiment of redesigning the entire primary education system initiated by Air Marshall Nur Khan, who gained and lost the confidence of Z A Bhutto with supersonic speed; (iii) the emergence of a new kind of private schools during the Zia era which undermined all cultural and social values the education system had been promoting until then; (iv) the stagnating years from 1990 to 1999, during which education became commercial business; and (v) the emergence of the Commando-CEO and his handpicked people who imposed their vision of education on the country during 2000-2008.

The Commando-CEO’s years from 1999 to 2008 witnessed the largest state investment in higher education since 1947. This was done mainly through the establishment of the Higher Education Commission in October 2002, by an act signed by the military dictator who had established his writ over the country through a midnight coup. Hardly a laudable start for a commission on higher education, one would say. But the most important aspect of this fiasco was the large shadow of Sept 11, 2001, and the immediate surrender of Pakistan’s sovereignty by the Commando-CEO. This shadow loomed large over everything he did; the HEC was no exception.

Right from the beginning, there was a slavish mentality which accepted the superiority of everything that came from foreign sources. In many respects, it was a project funded by foreign money with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. There was hardly anything indigenous in the entire setup; even the task force which recommended the establishment of the HEC was largely funded by foreign sources, and what it recommended was based on a foreign model. The recommendation of the task force said: “A central body is needed for facilitating quality assurance of higher education in both the public and private sectors, and linking funding by the federal government for public universities to the quality of performance (akin to the principle used by the Higher Education Funding Councils in the UK).” (Emphasis added.)

Notice the uncritical, wholesale import of a model that had little relevance to Pakistan. What set the HEC apart from its predecessor, the University Grants Commission (UGC), was this foreignness, this hypertext, imported from the colonial masters whose own aims had been to set up an education system that would produce lower-level cadres of their administrative system. The UGC, disorganised, almost dysfunctional as it was, was at least an outgrowth of the local educational structures and environment; the HEC was a super body, which functioned at the will of a few handpicked confidants of the Commando, who rolled bullions of rupees of foreign money into this ill-suited venture. The result: a lot of pomp, self-projection, ad hoc decisions, zero-sum sham schemes which overnight created universities on paper, and some infra-structure development, which could have been achieved at the fraction of the cost. More importantly, it did what the foreign donors wanted: it siphoned off the cream of this country into their hands as slave labour.

This is an aspect of the HEC which is seldom talked about; in fact, the HEC takes a lot of credit for sending thousands of young Pakistani students to foreign universities on scholarships, and whenever numbers are recited, everyone claps: Bravo. Well done. No one was, or is, interested in asking the next question: what for? What would these young men and women do when, and if, they return home after this state-sponsored extravaganza, to a country where 60 million children cannot read and write and where electricity outage makes it impossible to have a midsize laboratory!

No one was, and no one is, interested in looking at the stark realities of this land, think through the fog of pomp and a maze of statistical uncertainties to fully comprehend the dimension of Pakistan’s educational fiasco. All that the HEC did during the General’s ad hoc rule over this land was act at a feverish speed to produce a systematic fiasco which has now blossomed.

This failure was evident in the way the HEC operated under the direct command of one person who had the General’s ear in his grasp through sweet talk and hyperbole. It is true that the HEC did achieve a certain degree of success in putting together the basic infrastructure of the computer age in various universities. But given the amount of money it had at its disposal, even a medium-size private IT company could have done that at a fraction of the cost. It does not require a genius to buy and set up video-conferencing equipment and digital libraries, which are now increasingly available on the internet at no cost.

Those who created this last fiasco are no more running the HEC, but these “achievements,” written in golden letters in HEC records, are still being highlighted on the HEC website. But the irony is that this sycophantic self-glamorisation uses a Prof Wolfgang Voelter or a Prof Fred M Hayward or a Prof Michael Rode to tell this half-illiterate nation that the years 2002-2008 were “Pakistan’s golden period in higher education”! With such heavyweights, who figure nowhere in the educational scene of their homelands, no one is going to ask: why are these people telling us that we have suddenly achieved the impossible? How can they make these tall claims when they do not even know that 60 million children of this nation could have been taken off the streets with half the money spent on the HEC during these years? They have no clue of Pakistan’s inherent social, economic, and educational dilemmas, nor do they understand or care about our urgent needs in this crucial area of national life. But, then, neither do those who have robbed this country of years of development opportunities and who joined hands with a military dictator of Pharaonic character, who knew it all, who could do anything, who was wisdom incarnated.

The writer is a freelance columnist.


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