Education in a shambles

NEARLY a decade and a half has elapsed since the Higher Education Commission was set up in 2002. There were great hopes that the body, well-funded and comprised of professionals, would manage to turn the sector around. With its budget seeing a steady increase over the past several years, the HEC now tends to count its successes in terms of quantity: so many more PhD dissertations, so many universities accredited by it and so on. But education is all about quality, and whether there has been any real success in this area can be gauged by just one damning report that was released recently: no Pakistani university managed to earn a place for itself amongst the top 100 in Asia in the Times higher education rankings. This internationally recognised scale is based on 13 performance indicators that include teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, and it rates universities in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong in the top three slots for the region. But lest it be thought that economic powerhouses would of course produce the best educational institutions, it should be pointed out that universities from Lebanon and Iran are included on this list of academic excellence.

Asked about this dismal state of affairs, the chairman of the HEC Dr Mukhtar Ahmed referred to ground realities such as a lack of infrastructure, adding though that `we are on the right track`. This certainly sounds hopeful, yet there is evidence to be found to the contrary. Consider, for example, that the focus on higher education has not been buttressed by improvements in secondary and primary schooling despite all the warnings. The country`s school enrolment figures are abysmal as it is; last year, education campaigners Alif Ailaan pointed out that of the children that do manage to enrol, only a quarter make it to Grade 10. As far back as 2011, the report Education Emergency found that there are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan, but send more children to school; at the then rates of progress, no one alive today, it estimated, will see a Pakistan with universal education. Matters have not improved much since then. Public-sector education is a joke, and standards in private institutions, barring a few that can only be afforded by the wealthy, aren`t well regulated. How can the higher education sector be expected to succeed when even the building blocks aren`t in place?

Published in Dawn