Whither model university?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE model university ordinance has generated a lot of heat on the campuses all over the country. Although the draft of the ordinance has not been released, the structure it proposes is believed to be based on the report of the steering committee on higher education, which has been under discussion for the past several months.

What comes as a matter of serious concern is that the two sides are locked in a confrontation, which will not take them very far. The government will find it impossible to enforce an ordinance, which does not enjoy the support of the faculty. The continuing agitation by the teachers will destroy the public sector universities by interrupting academic activities.

The only positive aspect of this bleak situation is that the government has not promulgated the ordinance with immediate effect — though the federal cabinet has approved it. It claims to have entered into a dialogue with the teachers, though the latter deny that. It is strange that there in no public concern at the ongoing crisis.

From what has been stated — there has been a spate of statements, articles and interviews giving the points of view of the two sides — it appears that at the heart of the matter are three basic issues. Fears have been expressed that:

* The new system will result in the privatization of the public sector universities and an enormous increase in fees to meet the cost of education, which at present is officially subsidized. The increase in fees will make the universities unaffordable for a majority of students.

* The security of service of the teachers will be affected, since there is the proposal to introduce the tenure track system under which highly qualified teachers will be hired on lucrative salaries on contract and their performance monitored. The teachers fear that many of them will be thrown out of service on the slightest pretext.

* The decision-making role in the university managements will be assumed by the new governing bodies which will give excessive powers to the economic/corporate sector rather than the representatives of public opinion, who normally act in the broader interest of society and not to promote the profit interests of the entrepreneurs.

The government insists that these fears are unfounded. Dr Attaur Rahman, the minister for science and technology, in an interview even said “a lot of disinformation has been spread” about the ordinance. One cannot deny that there might be considerable exaggeration in what is being said and written on the subject. But some fears are not unfounded and should be addressed.

The apprehensions that the universities will be privatized appear to be baseless. Can one imagine the Karachi University, for instance, being sold to a private party? But the idea being bandied about the most in this debate is “privatization”.

The central issue is the fee structure. Under the ordinance one can expect an enhancement of the fees. This would not be something new since this process began nearly a decade ago. Initially, there was some resistance but over the years reasonable enhancements have come to be accepted every time they are undertaken.

An increase in fees within the existing parameters is therefore advisable if the university finances are to be improved. But the increase must be reasonable. It would be contrary to social justice if the authorities seek to recover the full cost of university education (claimed to be Rs 55,000 per annum) from the student. At present the average fee of a student at the Karachi University comes to about Rs 5,000. Those studying under the self-financing scheme or in the evening classes pay much more. By setting up endowments and comprehensive students’ loan schemes the universities can cover a considerable part of the deficit. The government would ease the situation by making a categorical public commitment to substantially bear the cost of educating university students.

The more practical approach would be for the authorities to streamline their spending on higher education by rationalizing its approach to university education. By allowing the proliferation of public sector universities with unnecessary duplication of many departments, the government has spread its resources too thin. The newest entrant in the field is the Foundation University in Islamabad to be headed by the chairman of the Fauji Foundation.

It is feared that under the ordinance, which will introduce the contract system, many teachers would be laid off. Even those hired on contract could find themselves ditched when the authorities decide in favour of downsizing for one reason or another. Hence the uproar.

It is time the teachers too realized that, generally speaking, they are held responsible for the declining standards of higher education. Whatever might be their arguments about universities being crowded and not enjoying autonomy, it is known that competent and dedicated teachers can work wonders to motivate their students and raise standards. The fact is that not all of them are qualified for their job and in the absence of an inbuilt process of scrutiny and evaluation a number of them are not doing as well as they are expected to. This is a very serious problem for which a solution has to be found. It is strange that the agitating teachers have not come out with any counter-proposal for their security of service while ensuring professional competence and requisite teaching standards. They must propose a system of confidential assessments of their performance if they want to be seen as having a good and credible case. It is also important that provision is made for the in-service training of teachers, most of whom are themselves the products of the present system that has long been in need of revitalization.

Autonomy for universities is an important issue, and not a new one. It has been the unfulfilled demand of the academics for decades. Although the present ordinance assures independence for the universities, it seeks to restructure their decision-making bodies in such a way that it is feared that the control of the corporate sector would be enhanced. It is difficult to comment on this because amendments have been made time and again to the provisions relating to the governing bodies, senate, syndicate and academic council. It is not very clear what the precise position is at the moment.

Some broad guidelines can be enunciated, however. Whichever body is to govern the universities, it is important that representation of a wide spectrum of society be inducted into it. No single authority or group — be it big business, donors, or the government — should have decisive control over decision-making. At the same time the academics’ participation should also be ensured in right proportion and under statutory guarantees.

Can one presume that the government has decided not to ride roughshod over the universities and wants to initiate a dialogue? If that is so, the first step it should take to create greater confidence and trust between the two sides is to make public the draft of the model university ordinance and invite a meaningful debate on it. In this way the ill feelings being created by speculation and disinformation can be avoided.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that without the cooperation of the academics no model university can be created. Neither can university standards be raised in isolation — without addressing the wider crisis afflicting the education sector. It is appalling that nothing is being done to reform the school system from where the malaise arises. If our schools continue to produce students who have little knowledge of their subjects, how can they be expected to be transformed overnight to fit into universities imparting quality education.

It is a different matter though, if the idea is to create elite universities to educate the children of a small section of our population who have studied in high-priced elite private schools. They are the privileged ones who can afford to study in private universities and hold their own in a competitive environment. It is the interest of the common man that the government must seek to protect and promote. Unfortunately this it has failed to do.

True, the steering committee’s report speaks of education being a continuum and concedes that the quality of education in schools will affect the quality of higher education. Yet no visible effort has so far been made to improve the standards of government schools where the bulk of our children are enrolled. Will the common man’s child who studies in a government school ever be in a position to compete for the limited university seats with the children of the rich who have attended elite private schools?