Around 8 months ago, I had the misfortune of meeting a lady who earns her living as an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at a major federal government university. In my brief and mostly forgettable encounter with her, I was subjected to a wide variety of completely ludicrous statements on Pakistani society, politics, and international affairs, with some of them being so mind-bogglingly inane that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her students.
Starting off from how Pakistan’s ‘national character’, (whatever that is), is unsuited to democracy, she veered off from the inane to the downright insane by claiming how western political science is worthless, how the world is still recovering from the ‘debris’ of the Ottoman Empire, and how there’s a need to understand politics in the light of Quran and Sunnah. As I write this down, as it gets printed, and as you folks read it, more innocent students are being subjected to her brand of ‘indie’ social science.
I was reminded of this encounter by a thread of emails between Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Physicist previously associated with Quaid-e-Azam University and now with LUMS, and Dr Javaid Leghari, the current head of the Higher Education Commission. The subject matter relates to the Physics dissertation of some student at Balochistan University, which discusses the ‘science’ of chromotheraphy, i.e. healing human beings through colors. Even to a completely non-science student like myself, the idea stinks of quackery and, as Dr Hoodbhoy puts it, crackpotism. What was more troubling – yes, more troubling than the fact that such things pass for intellectual discourse in this country – was that the supervisory board of this dissertation consisted of the current Vice Chancellor of QAU – the number 1 ranked university in Pakistan. And more troubling than even that was the HEC chairman’s reluctance to put his foot down, despite being given proof of academic fraud and shoddiness by Dr Amer Iqbal, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, and not one but two Physics Nobel Laureates.
What’s worrying is that the prevalence of academic fraud, plagiarism, and substandard output is not isolated to one, two or ten events. It is embedded into the higher education system in this country and it functions in constant perpetuity thanks to the standards, or lack thereof, of our existing academia. Between Hoodbhoy, Dr Isa Daudpota, and a few others, a number of such scams, frauds, and downright travesties have been unearthed over the last few years.
As a social science student, and as someone who wishes to be a part of higher education teaching and research in the near future, the level of this rot never ceases to amaze me. The incentive structure created by some universities, duly abetted by the HEC, i.e. giving money to professors for supervising students and publishing articles with no complementing monitoring mechanism, leads to outputs like the ones mentioned above.
More than that, thanks to the centralised nature of higher education, academia is treated as a defined career with incentivised rungs just waiting to be climbed – very much like being a civil servant or an army officer. There is no impulse amongst careerist professors, hailing from mostly conservative middle class backgrounds, to undertake their work with diligence as long as they’re getting their share from the higher education treasury. Little surprise then that the VC of our number one ranked university saw nothing wrong in approving a Physics dissertation that had nothing to do with the subject as the world understands it.
For a quick reality check, compare this to the case of India, where public sector education is flourishing, where their version of QAU, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is constantly ranked as one of the greatest post-graduate institutions in Asia, if not the world, and most of all, where genuine, citable research is being produced on a regular basis.
The problem with higher education is not limited to just that particular sector. It has a spillover effect on the next generation of researchers, thinkers, and intellectuals; it has an impact on how we understand identity, history, politics, and our place in the modern world; and most of all, it has an impact on our struggle with economic underdevelopment, poverty, and inequality. The lady I mentioned at the start seemed very smug and proud at her assessment, and subsequent middle finger to the ideas of western political science but what she’s clearly unable to see is that the joke’s on her, her students, and consequently, on all of us.
The writer blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected], or send a tweet @umairjava