In the United States of America, there are several university towns. University of Arizona is located in Tucson and University Illinois at Urbana Champagne. However, Pakistan has the unique distinction of being a university country. Aligarh University played a pivotal role in the creation of a new homeland for the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. A few years back, I was doing research on universities that have created major social impacts and two of them stand out. Aligarh for creating Pakistan and the University of Chicago where the anti-Vietnam movement was started which then spread to University of California at Berkeley and ultimately peace was achieved.
At the time of partition, Pakistan had very few seats for higher learning. University of Punjab being the oldest while Government College Lahore and Forman Christian College were its affiliate colleges. The founding fathers of Pakistan studied in universities that were not located in the new country. Have our institutions failed to produce the change leaders that can take the country forward instead of backwards as has been happening?
Only the province of Punjab has about forty public sector universities. The Vice Chancellors (VC) of these institutions are selected by a committee which has remained unchanged for over two decades despite major selection failures. Doctoral degree is a requirement for the position of VCs yet the committee till recently was composed of members without this level of education. The current VC of the Government College University, was not even called for an interview by the committee in the previous selection process. His writ is still pending in the Lahore High Court (LHC). Luckily he was called for an interview this time and selected for the position. In addition one PhD member has also been inducted in the selection committee but the Chairman remains unchanged.
It is a perfect example of an outdated and in appropriate committee selecting VCs of their choice who then fail to deliver. The challenges of 21st century universities are unique compared to the Aligarh Movement. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s vision was to empower the Muslim population of India by bringing them in the main stream of education and society. This effort then led to the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Sub-Continent.
Initially the universities were involved in teaching and research, where this trend continued till mid-20th century. In the 21st century in addition to creation of knowledge a university is required to generate wealth through academia-industry linkages. Most advanced institutions in the world embark on collaborative or sponsored research to generate revenue. In Europe most universities have no tuition fee only in UK this facilitation is not available. In USA most state institutions have low fee as compared to their private counter parts but student loans and grants are readily available for students to complete their programmes.
Status-quo can only be shattered through knowledge and free out of the box thinking. In an academic environment existing norms and practices are challenged. Young fertile minds are pushed to think and set their own course in life. There is always an element of rebellion.
There is a famous saying that, “if you are not radical when young you don’t have a heart and if you are not conservative when old, you don’t have a mind”. It is the battle between the heart and the mind that nourishes the growth process. Innovation and entrepreneurship also kicks in resulting in employment generation and socio-economic development but for all this to happen there has to be a road map and game plan.
Where is our game plan? Zulfiqar Ali Bhuttoo (ZAB) created the University Grants Commission(UGC) what was hailed as major a step forward. Zia was not interested in education and growth so it was stagnation all around. Musharraf then converted UGC into an autonomous Higher Education Commission (HEC). A lot of resources were also pumped in. The present four year B.Sc. Honours programme and mass production of PhDs was the output of this initiative. After the 18th constitutional amendment now provinces have established their own provincial HECs, with the one in Punjab being most active.
HEC funded PhD scholars conduct research in the country and abroad to find solutions that are mostly irrelevant to our needs. Once I met a scholar who had conducted research in improving the quality of water on the planet Mars. In utter shock I asked him who had indentified the research area. Who is doing research to improve the quality of our drinking water?
As it is believed, that a journey of thousand miles starts with the first step. Let us start this crusade by a total revamp of the existing selection committee that has outlived its utility. HEC Punjab should then be tasked to create a vision for the universities of the province and then bring in appropriate leadership to lead the educational revolution on the lines of Aligarh University and University of Chicago that changed the world in the 20th century. On August 14, 1947 a new country emerged on the world map under the leadership for Muhammad Ali Jinnah the seeds of which were sown at Aligarh University. In late sixties, USA decided to end the Vietnam War as a result of the peace movement started by another son of the country Dr. Eqbal Ahmed who was on the faculty of the University in Chicago. Educational institutions steer the course of a nation. It is time to liberate them from the clutches of status-quo through visionary leadership to move Pakistan forward.