Initially universities imparted knowledge, and then they started to create it through research while currently they have started to generate wealth. Unfortunately most of our academic institutions of higher learning are one century behind. In an information age a university has to lead the crusade for socio-economic development based on application and commercialisation of know-how.
Pakistan started off well. The founding fathers were well educated and understood the importance of knowledge. The first high tension physics lab was built in Government College Lahore in the sixties by Dr. Rafi Chaudhry. Abdus Salam the sole Nobel Laureate of the country was his student. University of the Punjab (PU) had several outstanding faculty members. National College of Arts was headed by Shakir Ali an outstanding artist of his times. Professor Hamid Ahmed Khan performed exceptionally well as Principal Islamia College, he was then elevated as Vice Chancellor (VC) of PU.
Students from Iran and Middle East were admitted into our institutions of higher learning. Education remained serious business till the campuses became political battle grounds. As a child growing up on the Mall very close to the campus, I observed a constant decline in the sixties. Ayub Khan’s Martial Law not only derailed our freedom struggle it badly ignored the education sector. In terms of expenditure in this vital sector of nation building, Pakistan was ranked lowest in Asia. VCs like Profs Hamid Ahmed Khan and U. Karamet resisted this onslaught by a usurper but the trend of defiance did not last long.
Genuinely elected governments served education well. University of Peshawar was built in 1950, while Karachi University was established in 1951. In the seventies the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) expanded the network of universities. Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and Gomal University were conceived during this period. University grants commission (UGC) came into being to fund and facilitate higher education in the country. UGC was then upgraded to Higher Education Commission (HEC) under the leadership of Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, a prominent scientist.
Quaid-e-Azam University remains the top research institution in the country. Pakistan’s nuclear device was designed by Prof. Riazuddin of this facility. Under the leadership of Prof. Sohail Zuberi significant research was carried out in the Electronics Department. Though creation of wealth through application and commercialisation of research has not taken place, the university can be steered in this direction under able leadership that understands academia-industry linkages.
In USA there is a tradition of ‘Exit Interviews’ for individuals who quit their jobs. As the person is on his way out he is at liberty to speak his mind. Several prominent educationalists of Pakistani origin came to serve their motherland but eventually left. LUMS the top rated educational institution of the country hired very high powered individuals with international standing but most of them left after one term or even before that. The current VC will also be leaving after the end of current academic year. I had the opportunity to talk to most of them. The public sector universities were a bit more accommodating. Prof. Shahid Bokhari after heading the Electrical Engineering Department at UET for over a decade finally left. I tried to convince him to stay on but he was fed up with the bureaucracy he had to face. Prof. Sohail Zuberi singlehandedly set up the Electronics Department at Quaid-e-Azam University. He supervised several research projects. After years of dedicated service he too called it quits. I tried to convince him to stay but he too was fed with bureaucracy and lack of leadership in the university.
Mistakenly I once applied for a VC Position and was interviewed by the search committee whose membership was pathetic. There was not a single PhD. or Scholar who had conducted research, written a paper or held patents, it was an example of blind selecting the blind, after that I never tried again despite requests. The current VC of one of the universities in Lahore was not shortlisted for interview by these so called experts. In protest he filed a writ petition in the Lahore High Court. In the next round of interviews he was called to appear before the committee and appointed VC. The same panel that had not shortlisted him earlier found him appropriate to head the oldest seat of learning in the country.
Our universities need major overhaul, starting with the bureaucracy, search committees, all the way down to the vision for a 21st century university, which does not exist. These educational gems that we produced who then came to serve but were then forced to return to foreign universities should constitute the selection committees they should also formulate their vision of a 21st century university in Pakistan against which candidates should be selected and then allowed to play their role in reforming our barren and mislead campuses.
No institution in the country is producing change managers who can take us forward. Aligarh University played a pivotal role in the creation of Pakistan. Now there is no one to lead the nation towards its cherished goals. Status-quo and stagnation is the order of the day. Due to lack of leadership in our academic institutions, there is neither creation of knowledge nor wealth. We need quantum leaps first by starting original research by qualified researchers followed by application and commercialization of this knowhow by experienced technologists. While science is knowledge, technology is its application for socio-economic development that is totally ignored. How long will be depend on foreign aid? Change is the only way forward. In the 18th year of the 21st century innovation is the order of the day. Instead of centuries the world now changes in decades. These outdated mechanisms and approaches have to be corrected. It is the future of our nation which is at stake. Pakistan needs 21st century universities headed by established academic managers, active scientists and established technologists, Bureaucrats and Generals have to be kept away. Our academic institutions have to lead the crusade for expansion of both knowledge and wealth essentially required to advance in the comity of nations. Our leaderless, visionless, directionless barren campuses are calling for help.
The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation.