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HI-Flat on its face

Higher education has been in the news of late and, may one dare say, for all the wrong reasons. A provincial minister in Sindh had to eat the proverbial humble pie — and to digest it as well — after his remarks on the issue of another university in Hyderabad earned the wrath of political rivals. And then it was about the establishment of yet another medical university in the country; Karachi, to be precise. Both the incidents, unfortunately, have more to do with politics than education.

The history of converting colleges into universities and establishing more and more and more universities does not run too deep; it is a relatively recent phenomenon dating back to just the Musharraf period. The dollars were coming in and, unlike the previous occasions, these were not, so to say, ‘free’ dollars. They were ‘allocated’ dollars for various social segments, and education was one of the key areas identified by the donors.

To ‘earn’ those dollars, one had to show something happening on the ground. For instance, the 14-year graduation was converted into the 16-year Bachelor’s degree; and the 16-year Master’s became the 18-year MS. Needless to say, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — to suggest that it had an impact on the quality of education that was being — and still is — imparted.

The sense of purpose among those who thought of such grand changes and sold to the masses like earth-shattering innovations can be seen by the simple fact that they preferred to take the most confusing route possible; introducing the new system while continuing with the old one.

When the 14-year graduates took admission to the universities, they were, in fact, taking admission for their second graduation because at the end of the 16th year, they were to get the coveted BS degree. This anomaly led to the introduction of a third stream which entitled people to opt for either the MA or the BS degree at the end of a course structure that was similar for both streams.

Those implementing it could have taken their time before introducing the system rather than thinking on the move, but they were desperate for the dollars because they could come only by showing on-ground progress.

The same was the case with the elevation and establishment of universities. What happened in the field of, say, medical universities is enough to establish the point. One after the other, medical colleges started putting on the university tag. These included colleges that were not even worthy of being called colleges. The increase in the net worth of these universities was in terms of their budget. After all, the office of a university vice-chancellor had to look more plush and cozy than that of a college principal. That naturally called for more budget, but that was not a problem because the coffers of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) were at the time brimming with money, money and more of it.

With this attitude on show, every university felt inclined to take its share of the booty. All they had to do was to come up with a project that needed financing. Since quality of education could not be considered a project — perhaps because it was not a tangible commodity — universities had to think of projects against which they could show something on the ground. It was a massive exercise in infrastructure enhancement that had precious little to do with education. The quality of this enhancement is in itself an interesting issue, but that is beside the point in the context of these lines.

Today, the sun has stopped shining on the HEC. The expansion of the last decade is now a stranglehold that is making life tough even for the mainstream universities. The University of Karachi, as has been widely reported, is in a financial mess; unable to continue with what it started under the HEC banner. It has already gone back on the BS and MS programmes on the academic side, and is struggling to pay the salary of its staff on the administrative side.

The mess owes its existence to the fact that funds have dried up and nobody knows what to do. It is an irony that politicians, who are supposed to be the policy-makers, are not aware of the shift in ground position. They are still busy haggling over the nomenclature of educational institutions and focussing on expansion and elevation when there is not enough money to sustain what we had started 10 years back. It was a short-term approach then, and today is no different.

The article appeared in DAWN images on 10-03-13, here http://epaper.dawn.com/DetailNews.php?StoryText=10_03_2013_430_002