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Rescuing higher education By M Zeb Khan

 If the fundamentals are wrong, window dressing will not save a system from crumbling under its own weight. Our higher education, founded on weak foundations and run on the basis of borrowed education models, seems to be taking the youth away from its promising future. There can be no greater harm than churning out degrees and research papers that have no substance or impact on society and economy. A few things need to be fixed before it is too late.

First, the existing criteria for selection of vice chancellors in public-sector universities is highly skewed in favour of professors with an academic background in mathematics and physical sciences such as physics,

chemistry, computer science and biotechnology, among others, because their research are published in journals that have impact. It is an established fact that social sciences and humanities can never come close to natural sciences in research output, given the different character and orientation of both the fields.

As a matter of tradition and fact, the role of vice chancellor has to do more with managing a university than producing research. Recently, two professors with PhDs in mathematics and but no administration expertise were appointed vice chancellors in two universities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Those who had PhDs in management as well as considerable experience in administration were left out of the race owing to their low research profile.

Second, the way universities are ranked is problematic. Presently, the ranking is mainly based on documentary evidence vis-a-vis faculty, infrastructure and other facilities. Physical verification, performance audit and third-party confirmation of assertions contained in the documents are rarely done. It has been observed that many universities manipulate data to paint a glossy picture of their programmes and facilities just to appease the HEC and mint money. Although the HEC has closed some programmes over low quality and deficient infrastructure, there is still more to be done to identify and do away with such institutions that act like vultures.

Third, the faculty’s pay and promotion are linked primarily to their research output. Teaching, co-curricular or services to the university do not receive due recognition which, as a result of the law of effect, translates into goal displacement. Realising this, many professors are tempted to produce research papers (mostly published in low quality and paid journals) by all means – fair or foul. Some smart ones even produce more than 40 papers per annum. Incentivising research on the basis of quantity has virtually killed real scholarship. Genuine research requires inquisitiveness and intrinsic motivation to produce knowledge in any field. Digging out the dead from one graveyard and burying them in another hardly matters in research.

To top it all, the semester-based education system is not in sync with our socio-cultural context. It gives teachers too much autonomy on matters such as deciding the content of the courses, teaching methodology, paper-setting, and evaluation of students. This system assumes that teachers have impeccable integrity, recognised competence in their respective fields and have opted to join the teaching profession with missionary zeal.

Having been associated with this profession for the last 18 years, I have observed that unchecked autonomy has caused tremendous harm to the quality of teaching. Unwary of any independent external checks, most teachers tend to play with the system. To strike a balance between professional autonomy and independent evaluation, developing an indigenous model of higher education, with good features taken from both the conventional and semester systems, seems necessary.

Instead of the proverbial escalation of commitment, in which an individual or group despite persistently facing negative outcomes from some decision or action continues the same behaviour, the HEC should revisit some of the reforms that it introduced in 2002 and afterwards. There is no harm and shame in altering a course that only makes the journey problematic and distances you from destiny.

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