No child’s play

By Zubeida Mustafa

FOUZIA is 13 and is employed by a working mother of two children. Fouzia is the victim of oppression on three counts. She performs the duties of an adult woman, which would be classified as child labour. She is not attending school as is compulsory for children from five to 16 years of age under Article 25-A of the Constitution.

Above all, she will soon be another example of early marriage as she is said to be engaged. The wedding will take place as soon as she has earned enough for her dowry. In the process, Fouzia has been robbed of her childhood and an education.

These deprivations do not bother this young girl’s family. Their sociocultural norms and, according to many, poverty have landed her in this ugly situation. According to Unesco, from 1987 to 2005, early marriage was the fate of nearly 32 per cent of all children in Pakistan. Continue reading “No child’s play”

Creeping changes

By Zubeida Mustafa

A SILENT language revolution is changing the face of Pakistan in the public discourse. There was a time when proceedings in most dialogues were conducted in English. As could be expected, the message conveyed by the speakers would not get across to the entire audience.

Mercifully, things have begun to change. Bilingualism is the order of the day with greater weightage being given to indigenous languages. Those who really want to communicate with the audience — politicians and the electronic media — are aware that they would have few takers if they were to speak in English as not many understand the nuances of this foreign language and even fewer can speak it. This acknowledgment of the reality is a positive development, especially when we claim to be a democracy. Continue reading “Creeping changes”

Short-cuts to writing?



By Zubeida Mustafa

We Pakistanis are very ingenious and resourceful when it comes to solving seemingly intractable issues. We manage to “invent” solutions for every problem we face – and there is no shortage of those.

Power shortage? Generators and UPS’ flood the market and, presto, you have your own power supply. What’s more, you have a choice to meet the size of your pocket.

Security concerns with crime on the rise? Private security companies can provide guards on demand and, depending on your budget, you can have as many as you want. They are also armed to give you an extra sense of safety.

A child doing badly in her studies because the school is failing to meet the standards set for it? No problem. Get private tutors and, with the mushrooming of tuition centres, you have a wide choice.

Need to publish research papers to be promoted as professor? And those no-good editors don’t find your research sound enough to publish? Don’t worry. There are numerous, if somewhat dubious, online journals who will publish your paper for a fee and you get a title of a publication to add to your CV and get a promotion.

The latest to join this privileged club is an institution called The Writing Centre. Not that such centres didn’t exist before. They catered primarily to the needs of aspiring creative writers, providing one-on-one training to those who could write but needed guidance in fiction writing.

But now such centres have a new dimension. They have ‘consultants,’ not teachers, to perform their functions. In April, the impressive sounding ‘First National Dialogue on Writing Centres’ brought together a number of people from various universities and institutions, where writing is being taught as an organised discipline. Hosted by the Institute of Business Administration’s (IBA) Ardeshir Cowasjee Centre for Writing (ACCW), the idea of the dialogue was to promote this new entrant into our academia. An array of high-profile speakers were present to praise, not the art of writing, (which I would do any day), but the centres that teach writing.

And, of course, writing needs a language. From what I could gather from the two sessions I attended, the language being promoted is, as expected, English. Dr Ishrat Hussain, former Director of the IBA and now Professor Emeritus, rightly pointed out that, “In the current phase of globalisation, English is the principal language of technology, science, research and international relations. Pakistani students seeking to acquire new levels of professional qualification in Pakistan or in overseas countries direly need to enhance their proficiency in English to be able to benefit from new knowledge and obtain progressive employment.”

The disturbing question one is confronted with is: Aren’t our schools and colleges teaching the students how to write? English has been promoted aggressively in our school system at the expense of our indigenous languages, especially in the elite private schools, so it comes as a surprise that their students need writing centres to learn how to write. And mind you, these schools constitute the catchment area of enrolment in most business universities.

I had visited the ACCW soon after it was founded in 2014 at the invitation of Dr Ishrat Hussain. I was impressed, though a bit uneasy with the implications of such an institution. I was told then that some students coming from high-fee schools – I won’t name them – were not sufficiently proficient in English. Hence the need to teach them how to write and bring them at par with their classmates. Now I am told that the ACCW has so far “helped over 1035 students to improve their writing skills, critical, analytical thinking and self-confidence in articulation. Providing a one-on-one consultancy facility in sessions of about 40-45 minutes’ duration, students and consultants (senior students, lecturers etc.) review idea generation, structure of texts, grammar and syntax and complex stylistic concerns.”

That means our teaching and language standards have gone down further. In this context, the Writing Centre would appear to be an innovative idea. It would have been so much better had the students been taught all this when they were in school. But obviously they are not being taught well enough. Hence the demand for often exorbitantly costing tuitions and for writing centres.

The writing schools are shortcuts to make amends for the flaws in our education system. Instead of addressing the basic weaknesses in our collapsing system of education, we are trying to provide for a small class that is privileged.

As happens when such an approach is adopted, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots widens. It is the moral responsibility of the elite to extend a helping hand to the disadvantaged ones. Can we afford to leave 25 million children out of school while a small crust of the more fortunate ones get the best education for which they can pay?

Another cause of concern is that we tend to explore solutions at the higher education level, when a preponderant majority of the children who enter the education stream have dropped out. Crying over spilt milk after a child’s formative years are over, does not help much. It is time we stopped slicing education into different sectors. It should be treated as a composite whole. If schools fail to teach language properly, the universities will naturally get students who cannot write. To say academic writing has to be taught, as one speaker said, is a myth. Anyone who knows how to write in a language and has knowledge of his subject, can be given guidelines in an hour on how to write a business letter, make a project proposal or write a research paper. There is no shortcut to writing.

Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist. She writes on a variety of subjects but her interest has mainly been in the social sector which she has covered extensively. She has investigated in-depth issues such as education, health care, women’s empowerment, children’s rights and the lives of ordinary people.

Source: Newsline May 2017

Where the ill lies

By Zubeida Mustafa

“THERE has been an enormous overproduction of uneducated and ill-trained medical practitioners … due to the existence of a very large number of commercial (medical) schools … which are profitable business.”

Does the above refer to Pakistan? It doesn’t but it could as it is an apt description of the conditions prevailing in the country. The words above are from Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report on the state of medical education in North America. It led to the closing down of 124 of the 155 medical schools operating in the US and Canada at the time. Continue reading “Where the ill lies”

Right vs wrong

IN a society as morally perverse and corrupt as ours, does a centre of ethics have any relevance? A cynic’s answer would be a resounding ‘none whatsoever’. The idealist/reformer would say, ‘all the more’. That is a dilemma that faces all activists in this country seeking to light the spark of change.

In this context, the SIUT’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC) faces a daunting challenge. It has been struggling for the last 13 years to introduce an ethical perspective not just in healthcare but also in the non-medical sector. Its endeavours became meaningful and received international recognition when last week WHO declared the CBEC a Collaborating Centre for Bioethics — one of the eight to receive that prestigious status worldwide. Continue reading “Right vs wrong”

Inspiring change

By Zubeida Mustafa

EDUCATION in Pakistan has not proved to be the catalyst for change that a dynamic and enlightened knowledge sector has been in many societies. The socio-cultural stagnation has been made worse by the lack of motivation in the teachers.

They can be the change-makers — many are playing that role at an individual level — that we so badly need today. But collectively, they are not. Continue reading “Inspiring change”

Quest for schools

Neelum Colony on the fringe of DHA, Karachi

By Zubeida Mustafa

MARCH 23 was an occasion for soul-searching by civil society activists. In a meeting they demanded a new social contract to revive the spirit of the Lahore Resolution. The emphasis was on giving the underprivileged their due share in parliament and national resources. The assumption is that a share in policymaking and the country’s wealth will empower the disadvantaged, that is, the majority. Continue reading “Quest for schools”

Language whims

By Zubeida Mustafa

MY last column on language-in-education evoked interesting comments from readers. Some raised valid concerns. Others betrayed unfounded fears about language — and also education. Quite a few of the comments were more an outpouring of emotional biases and not based on rational thinking.

First of all what needs to be clarified is that there is a world of difference between using a language as a medium of instruction (MOI) and teaching it as a subject. Whenever there is a discourse on the language-in-education issue we seem to get carried away by our passion for English. It needs to be understood clearly that a child learning history, geography or even science in an indigenous language can still learn English as a second language just like any German or Korean child does. If English is taught by competent teachers using the correct methodology the child will learn it well and quickly. Continue reading “Language whims”

Why English again?

By Zubeida Mustafa

SINCE 1999, when Unesco first declared Feb 21 International Mother Language Day, this issue has received much attention throughout the world. In Pakistan, where the language issue has always had a complexity of its own, educators, linguists and activists are now more vocal than ever.

Will the ruckus being created have a real impact on the language situation in various sectors of national life? The courts have given two major language-related verdicts in the past two years. One was the Supreme Court’s directive of 2015 asking the government to use Urdu as the official language of administration. The second is the recent order of the Lahore High Court asking the Federal Public Commission to conduct CSS examinations in Urdu.

There is a logical link between the two. A person who is to conduct the affairs of governance in one language should be fluent enough in it to pass an exam to qualify as an administrator. The conclusion that follows is that the CSS candidates should have studied Urdu in school as well as college to be able to take examinations in that language. Continue reading “Why English again?”

Blame rests on ….

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN August, Pakistan will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence. This has understandably spawned a spate of soul searching. It was in abundance at the Karachi Literature Festival. The session titled “Pakistan: a fragile state or resilient nation” focused entirely on the state and didn’t address the issue of resilience at all. The state was held responsible for all the evils that have befallen us.

Unsurprisingly, the speakers concentrated on identifying the villain of the piece that was said to be the ‘state’ — an abstract term. As the discussion proceeded, the state became the “invisible state” and then the “deep state”. The audience clearly understood that these terms referred to the army which has played a central role in determining Pakistan’s destiny. Continue reading “Blame rests on ….”