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The pursuit of uniformity

There once was a national university, let’s call it the National University of Technology (NUT) located in Metropabad, a major city of a developing nation.

Metropabad was a sought-after place to live, which is why NUT – a public university – was fortunate to attract some of the most qualified faculty available in the country. However, Metropabad was one of only a few well-developed cities in the country which meant that the cost of living there was high relative to most of the country. Faculty members happily joined NUT but soon discovered that they could not make ends meet on their salaries, which were affixed centrally, and country wide.

Kot Sadu, a small town in a rural area of that same country was home to another university, let’s call it the Rustic University of Technology (RUT). RUT was located in an underdeveloped part of the country with no industry in its vicinity, Internet connectivity that was spotty, slow, and unreliable, and traveling on roads after sunset could be unsafe. Students attending RUT were often from nearby districts that were similarly underdeveloped and were, for the most part, underprepared for university studies.

NUT and RUT were two very different institutions with different resources, different caliber faculty, and students of different levels of preparation. Nevertheless, they were judged by the same yardstick – the number of papers published irrespective of whether they contained anything worthwhile or not.

Universities like NUT were unable to pay their faculty a competitive wage because they were constrained by nationally set remuneration scales that were blind to the needs and context of universities like NUT which was located in a major metropolitan area and had a higher cost of living. It was equipped to do good, valid research but could not afford to retain the talent it needed. The bureaucracy of education refused to acknowledge that all institutions of higher education were not alike, could not have the same mission, and that not all of them were equipped to conduct valid, let alone world-class, research. Albeit for different reasons, the pursuit of uniformity was strangling both NUT and RUT.

Just like Metropabad’s NUT and Kot Sadu’s RUT, Pakistan’s public universities are either like one or the other or fall somewhere in between. An entry-level faculty position usually goes to someone in their late 20s or early 30s, an age bracket in which many in our society have a young family. At many public universities, the starting salary for an entry-level faculty position, as decreed by the HEC’s Tenure Track System (TTS) contracts, even one from one of the world’s top universities, is around Rs200,000 (less than $720 by today’s exchange rate).

However, unlike public sector employees all through the government, they are not offered any pension, medical coverage, or other benefits. To add insult to injury, they are working alongside colleagues on legacy BPS contracts that do provide those benefits. Predictably, the result has been acrimony and dissatisfaction because appointees under both service structures want what the other one has but they do not. This has been a standing problem for over a decade that I have written about on multiple occasions (most recently, ‘The fierce politics of Pakistan’s academia’, The News Intl., December 23, 2023).

In a recent meeting of university leaders and senior members of the education bureaucracy in Islamabad, some of the recommendations on some issues made sense but others were rather lackluster and predictable.

On the issue of multiple service tracks for faculty, the recommendation was to create a “standardized performance-based faculty appointment service structure in the HEIs” and a “unified pay scale(s) … in consultation with the Government of Pakistan.” Similarly, recommendations included “uniform criteria and pay packages … for positions like Registrar and Treasurer.” The assembly also made recommendations about the procedure for PhD students to change their supervisors, which amounts to external micro-management of universities and is something the learned leaders of universities should be able to figure out for themself.

I found it noteworthy that most recommendations amounted to demands from everyone working below the rank of VC (academics, finance departments, curbs on admin promotions, austerity) and many demands from various departments and agencies of the government (demand for guidelines/dictation, more funds for salaries of Pro-VCs, seed funding for endowments, etc). It seems like the only group of whom very little is demanded are VCs themselves – no expectation to fundraise, no expectation to lobby for legal reforms on behalf of their institutions, no expectation to innovate.

On almost every challenge, the default response seems to be to seek assistance, resources, and guidance from outside instead of leveraging the lack of decrees issued from the top as policy space in which to innovate. This is not a suggestion without precedent: Over the years, at least a few public universities have established and grown their endowments and can now afford to pay what they need to retain the right academic talent. They are not beholden to every minor diktat from the education bureaucracy and can exercise their autonomy like most other universities only dream of. Globally, in many countries this is not an exception – it is the norm.

As a nation, we are obsessed with uniformity, even where it does not make sense. We are cursed with a smooth-talking ruling elite that is, some more than others, quick on cunning slogans but dim-witted on policy. We ought to strive for equal opportunity but that is not the same and should not be confused with enforced uniformity. Nevertheless, campaign promises of uniformity, singleness, and the elimination of choice (for others) draw cheers from voters.

I would like to make a special mention here of Germany (population 84 million all speaking one language). Post-WW2, Germany has trodden carefully to avoid any kind of hierarchy or class/caste system in its population for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, its secondary school system (grade 5 and onwards) comprises at least four different types of schools geared to prepare students for different futures (vocational or academic). Providing students equal opportunities does not imply that all schools and curricula must be cast from the same mould.

Uniformity (of some kind) may be an option in city-states and small countries like Monaco / Liechtenstein / Iceland / Maldives / Luxembourg (populations of less than ~1 million), Ireland / New Zealand / Norway / Finland / Denmark / Singapore (populations of less than six million). It is not an option for a country with the fifth-largest population of 245 million and that speaks more than 70 languages, especially with next to no additional resources to deploy.

The only place in our country that could qualify is the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) with a population of 1.2 million and less than 450 public schools. At the current pace of spending on ICT schools and if the population stands constant, it will be more than a decade until all schools can be provided with basic infrastructure that many are missing and achieve a basic level of uniformity of infrastructure – boundary walls, toilets, running water, electricity, classroom furniture, Internet access, computers labs, and libraries.

We should certainly strive for equal opportunity for school and university students although, in a country as large and diverse as ours, we are still decades away from achieving it. And as misguided as it is, there is no possibility of the kind of perfect uniformity that political messiahs keep promising voters. Anyone who tells you otherwise either does not know what they are talking about or is being dishonest.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "The pursuit of uniformity," The News. 2024-04-08.
Keywords: Education , Higher education , Qualified faculty , Academics , Bureaucracy , Pakistan , New Zealand , ICT , TTs