Quality is claimed but not practised

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Quality in higher education is frequently disputed, but little thought is given to what ‘quality’ implies in this context. Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which relates to education, calls for inclusive, affordable, and equitable lifelong learning alternatives. When it comes to higher education, ‘quality’ refers to the ability to think critically, creatively, and tolerantly.
As the previous head of quality assurance at the Higher Education Commission (HEC), I had the opportunity to read practically all of our universities’ mission statements. These are full of strong phrases like “excellence,” “quality,” “world-class,” “state-of-the-art research and teaching,” “preparing students for leadership,” and so on, but they don’t tell much about how these schools actually follow their principles. How can a university provide instructional programmes if it lacks the necessary faculty, lab, and materials? How can professors teach in classes if they lack the necessary skills?
This is only the beginning of the problems with our higher education system. Vice chancellor appointments are not made in accordance with any of a university’s mission statement’s requirements. A VC’s tenure isn’t measured in terms of advancements in a university’s teaching and learning culture. Instead, the number of new postgraduate programmes developed, students enrolled, or admissions and jobs offered to please political powers are used to measure performance. Worse, colleges that are otherwise short on basic teaching resources begin to offer glitzy programmes in order to take advantage of government incentives or just to meet market demand.
It’s no surprise that, despite their lofty boasts, these universities continue to attract students who are uninterested in their own education. Teachers do not examine pedagogical approaches and are constrained to teach a predefined curriculum in a limited amount of time; students are fascinated with grades rather than skill; and students are preoccupied with grades rather than skill.
Unfortunately, there has never been a strong advocate for great education inside the state. What are we doing to the youth of today? We are clearly not prepared kids to meet the expectations of businesses in particular and society as a whole. How much longer can we keep going like this? Universities have been forced to develop or perish as a result of the growing pandemic. Ours can’t compete with the flood of low-cost digital opportunities available at home from much more advanced universities throughout the world.
Perhaps things have gotten to this point because high-quality higher education has never been a priority in our society. Higher education is a mark of distinction and a requirement for white-collar government jobs with a pension for the rising middle class. Those who are not hired by the government look for work in the private sector or with non-governmental organisations. Ivy League universities are within reach for the offspring of the wealthy. They later look for work in international corporations and non-governmental organisations. In any event, higher education has never been considered important to the interests of the merchant and feudal elites. The only reason they want to get a degree is to be employable or to get a good marriage proposal.
It’s also regrettable that there has never been a strong advocate for great education inside the state. Government occupations have always expected compliance and submission, not efficiency or output. Employees of the government have permanent positions; the only behaviour that results in punishment is insubordination. Critical thinking, inventiveness, and a desire for change can only lead to a forced exit in such an environment.
Parents and students alike have a misaligned set of priorities. Admissions to medicine and engineering are at the top of their priority list. Institutional excellence rankings have become social status and exclusivity identifiers. Doctorates are in high demand, not because students are interested in philosophical questions, but because of their fascination with prefixes like ‘Dr’ or, our one and only innovation, ‘Professor Dr.’ The high number of people enrolled in doctoral programmes in Islamiyah and Pakistan Studies reflects a need for recognition that comes without much effort in creativity, rather than a love for religion or nation.
The HEC took over the University Grants Commission and was tasked with ensuring that Pakistani degrees were properly recognised. It immediately sparked a competition to build a “recognised university” in each area. It was thought that rivalry between public and private institutions would keep standards from slipping during this time of expansion. To this goal, many changes were made, including the replacement of annual exams with a semester system and the use of MCQs, short questions, and assignments to cure rote learning. Exams were to be held at various times throughout the semester. Despite this, we are still unable to accurately assess the abilities of our graduates.
Two-year Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes were mixed up to produce fresh new honours programmes after the establishment of HEC, although colleges were also allowed to continue two-year BA and MA programmes in the name of cost. This made it possible to discriminate openly between the rich and the poor. As a result, we currently offer two-year BA, 3.5-year BA (Honours), and four-year honours programmes, as well as one-year, 1.5-year, and two-year Master’s and MPhil degrees. We have also tried much too much with our PhD programmes.
There were MPhil programmes that led to PhD programmes at first. This was later phased out. Now we’re calling for a three-tiered system once more. In terms of competences and skills, these programmes are not directly comparable. In this jumble, how do you gauge quality?
The Bologna Process could not have miraculously improved our higher education system just by signing it. The Bologna Process was founded on a student-centred, outcome-oriented approach to learning. It necessitated prior qualification recognition, allowing for credit transfers across universities across Europe. It took ten years to reach a consensus on the protocols, and then they were legally accepted. The Bologna reforms were designed to improve student competitiveness, employability, and mobility across the European Union. On all of these fronts, we’ve failed miserably. We don’t even transfer credits within Pakistani universities, but we aspire to do so with colleges outside.