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Education and other non-priorities

Around the world, universities have multiple goals. Core among them remains teaching in degree programmes to pass on knowledge, make (mostly) young adults understand the world we inhabit, elevate them to become capable of reasoning, and become contributing members of society.

They offer graduate programmes – MS, MA, PhD – to prepare students to conduct research and create new knowledge. While the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s own sake is a perfectly good reason for getting an education, universities do not exist in a vacuum or bubble. As such, another goal of universities is to make a positive impact on the immediate and wider communities they are a part of.

What about universities in Pakistan? What goals do or should they prioritize? How well are universities’ operations aligned with those priorities? Over the last two decades, all incentives have been reoriented towards a single goal: raising the number of research papers with author affiliations from Pakistan, however frivolous they might be (save for a small fraction). Twenty years later, those research papers have just become an expensive flex and a way to decide who gets promoted and who does not. In terms of our universities’ reputation as a place of quality scholarship, innovation in the economy, and wider society, the impact of university research is not discernable.

Some might point to the nascent local startup scene as evidence of research impact. For the most part, those startups are not the result of any great research that happened at universities but have been enabled by the easier availability of young university graduates in greater numbers than before. In other words, more than any research done in universities, it is boring old teaching – for which there are no demands on quality, no repercussions for doing it badly, and no appreciation for doing it well – that has made an impact. Valid and world-class research continues to remain the forte of a select few places in a select few universities.

Our higher education sector is not the only one where the majority of students – undergraduates – suffer from mediocre to badly delivered teaching while the incentive structure in place puts all emphasis on research at the expense of the learning experience. Higher education in the US is in a similar bind. According to a US News report, in 2021-22, median tuition per annum at private universities stood at $38,185 and for out-of-state/international students at public universities at $22,698. If you choose a university with a good reputation, that same bill can easily cross the $60,000 per annum mark. For context, according to the US Census Bureau, the national median household income in 2022 was $74,580.

For such an exorbitant price tag, students are justified in expecting a great learning experience. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, especially in the first two years. Teaching is often off-loaded onto adjunct faculty members who are hired on short-term contracts, paid by the hour, and do not spend more time on campus than they must because they have cobbled together three or four teaching assignments (often at different institutions) to make ends meet and are, therefore, not available to students.

To make matters worse, tenure-track faculty members who have secured sufficient research grants have the option to ‘buy out’ their teaching time – pay the university to not teach and hire an adjunct professor in their stead, so they can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to their research.

When the research so produced is world-leading, this arrangement all makes sense from the universities’ perspective. However, for undergraduates, who make up the majority of the student population, their tuition payments support this research ecosystem while they get the short end of the stick. A recent report by The Chronicle of Higher Education (‘Americans value good teaching. Do Colleges? – The evidence doesn’t look good’, September 20, 2023) suggests that the rising cost of higher education is compelling more incoming undergraduate students and their parents (who often foot the bill) to pay attention to the quality of teaching universities offer.

Universities in the UK take a very different approach to ensuring the quality of teaching they deliver. During their first few years of service, young faculty members are required to earn a Post-graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) – usually around 18 months in duration, costing around GBP 10,000 (often at the employer’s expense) and rated equivalent to half an MEd degree. It provides formal training on education theory and practice in higher education.

To ensure that faculty members have sufficient time to deliver a good teaching experience for students, even teaching-focused faculty is typically assigned one or two courses in a semester. For faculty members expected to do research, it can be as little as one or less.

I have frequent opportunities to speak to faculty members in universities in Pakistan. Here, universities offering a relatively low teaching load will still assign two to three courses a semester, but most will assign as many as five or more, while also maintaining an expectation of research. Even the most well-qualified and well-intentioned faculty member could not do justice to such a workload.

Given the prevailing conditions, things are about to get worse. Adjusted for inflation, public funds for universities have been drying up. Every week newspapers report on yet another university that has been unable to make payroll for months. Universities are under more pressure than ever to raise funds on their own. The quickest way to do that is to raise student enrollment numbers, which will mean even more work for faculty, and/or raise tuition fees, which will put higher education out of more people’s reach.

Since universities lack the resources to raise salaries, some have decided to look the other way and let their faculty members moonlight by teaching at other institutions in the evening. The practice of hiring adjunct professors on the cheap as a means to save money has been a widespread practice for years; a PhD-qualified adjunct professor can be had to deliver a course for as little as Rs120,000 for a whole semester (four to five months). If the university can get away with it, an MS/MA-qualified person can be hired full-time for Rs45,000-50,000 and loaded up to teach as much as the day allows.

Budget allocations are reflections of a government’s actual priorities – everything else is lip service. When teaching – the core function of a university – has been relegated to the lowest rung, what hope can we hold out for the future? On the trajectory we are on, universities will go the way of schools: overworked and underpaid staff and able to attract only those who could not find work elsewhere, an occupation of last resort.

In conclusion, I want to leave readers with a challenge: How many countries do you know that went from developing- to developed-country status without having good schools and universities? Exactly! If you are waiting for this country to make a serious, long-term commitment to sustainable change and development, look towards education, both schools and universities. Everything else is kabuki.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Education and other non-priorities," The News. 2023-10-02.
Keywords: Education , Higher education , Education sector , Scholarship , Researchers , Pakistan , GBP , PhD