Following several interesting conferences and meetings last week, discussing international issues, research, education, and politics in the midst of it, I decided to share some stories and thoughts with you –so you can think more and deeper, and so we can begin to see some of the change and improvement that would be needed.

The first conference was the one by the Society of Asian Civilisations, about Pakistan’s pluralistic cultural values, held in Islamabad. There I had the opportunity to listen to the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Dr Javed Ashraf. He spoke about the importance of including people of minority religions in top posts in Pakistan; in his direct language, which was far from diplomatic, he said he was saddened by not seeing people with Christian and other backgrounds holding high posts in the country, including as vice-chancellors. At the conference in question, I am sure most if not all would agree with Dr Ashraf, at least as long as the conference lasted. How they would act afterword, if having any say on such issues, would be another thing, and then various loyalties, practical politics and more would come into play. Prof. Dr Ashraf is right, of course, to speak about the issue. But then in a few months, he will leave Pakistan again, returning to the USA where he has spent most of his university life for some thirty years.

The latter brings me to another aspect of being independent and outspoken; it is easier to be that when we have a safety net somewhere else when one arrives from afar and returns to afar. Expatriates are like that, too –something we experienced more when technical assistance in development aid was common a generation ago. It was useful to have the ‘free-flying birds’, people who were independent, principled and competent, especially in academia, indeed in social sciences. Nevertheless, a Pakistani vice-chancellor should also belong to the local culture and not be similar to an expatriate. A researcher could be more independent and point out sensitive shortcomings, but s/he needs to leave the implementation of policies to the local administrators and politicians.

Diversity is always crucial to the working environment of all institutions and workplaces. It is useful to have people with varied backgrounds as for age, gender, geography, ethnicity, religion, culture, socio-economic backgrounds, academic specialisations, experiences, and so on. At universities, we certainly need heterogeneity. We also need openness, accountability and transparency, it being the foundation of research, and one should be able to check data and challenge conclusions. Furthermore, in order to reach the diversity of backgrounds we at conferences say we cherish –and maybe we even mean it in real life too– we need to develop some guidelines and rules, such as certain numbers and percentages of staff that should (in due course) come from underrepresented groups; religious minorities and indeed women being two such groups. Politicians, professional societies and interest groups must prioritise for change to be implemented –yet, there will always be some who will maintain the status quo.

In my home country Norway, I remember that many were upset about the new rule in 2005 requiring that companies registered on the stock exchange had to have at least forty per cent women on their boards. But it could be realised over some time. I believe that the boards became better with the inclusion of women on companies’ boards, and that was the point. It was not only about fairness for women; it was about improving quality and adding competence and experience. Similarly, more Christian VCs would be good for Pakistan; it would make use of existing competence, and it would thus make the land better for everyone. Besides, it is a democratic issue, as is also the issue of gender equality.

The second meeting I attended last week was organised by the Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences (IUCPSS). It was a slightly casually put together group, as is unfortunately often the case when IUCPSS holds meetings. Nevertheless, it was indeed useful for those who attended it. Being a social scientist myself, and now also working with the independent interest group called the Council of Social Sciences (COSS), I enjoyed the event. The meeting gave some 70-80 invited participants an opportunity to meet the new Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Prof. Dr Tariq Banuri, and listen to his eloquent speech about the role and future of the Commission. He is an engineer and economist with a research interest in climate change, sustainable development and growth issues, among other things. He has worked at international organisations and research institutions, most recently at the University of Utah, USA, till the last month when he took up his high post back home.

I hope that Dr Banuri has had good contact with Pakistan during his many international years, although it will be a learning curve, too, to realise Pakistan’s higher education culture, as it is for everyone who returns home to the home country after many years abroad. Ideally, I would say that one should spend several months, perhaps a year’s time in the home country, before one takes up top responsibilities there.

Those issues aside, foreign and international experience gives important learning that can be ploughed back into the home country. Dr Banuri has broad experience that could help shape and regularise Pakistani universities’ international linkages. There is a need for making international cooperation common to all universities in simple and practical ways.

I was glad to hear Dr Banuri underlining that students were indeed important members of universities, yes, maybe the most important ones, along with their teachers in the academic communities they form. I have visited many Pakistani universities over the years. It is always a pleasure to listen to the students, their eagerness to learn and to know, to find answers to issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the education and training the universities offer always meet the standards that we should expect today, especially not in research methods, analysis and thinking in the social sciences. Dr Banuri spoke about the importance of quality improvement in higher education in Pakistan. Indeed true, but it is easier said than done to lift the quality.

I was impressed by the new HEC Chairman stating that in certain fields where he had himself advanced experience and competence that would mainly mean strength, yet, at the same time, it might also mean a disadvantage. That way of thinking that things are never ‘either-or’, is essential for any good leader, especially in education and research, indeed in social sciences and the humanities where sharp minds know that it is honest analysis and reflection that count. We can never be sure that we alone know it all.

At the first conference, I attended last week, Barrister Syed Ali Zafar, Caretaker Minister of Broadcasting, spoke. He emphasised the importance of education at all levels, not only higher education. A balanced view is undoubtedly essential. Furthermore, the minister was such a wise and eloquent speaker that it seemed that most of us would have liked the conference opening session to go on for much longer than it did. When people like the Minister and the HEC Chairman speak, we realise that Pakistan has capable people, who can indeed take the country ahead through the right organisations.

Finally, let me draw some further attention to the size of the education budgets in Pakistan and the balancing of the inputs to the various levels. Everyone with some knowledge of the education sector advocate that UNESCO’s recommended minimum be followed, notably four per cent of GDP of any country should go to the sector, not somewhere below half as is still what Pakistan allocates to education and research. Recently, we have seen figures in the media based on SPARC’s annual report, showing that over twenty million school-age children are out of school in the country, and of those who do attend primary education, many go to substandard schools, indeed often with semi-relevant curriculum, also in the private schools. When I worked in UNESCO in Pakistan in 2001-2003, the budgets were small, too. Increases at that time came to higher education under the dynamic first chairman of HEC, Dr Atta-ur-Rehman. It was our task to remind policy-makers to lift the whole sector. Today, I would argue for the same, and I would also support those who want more to the tertiary levels, including research, not at the expense of primary and secondary education, but simultaneously. Until Pakistani finance ministers realize that, the country is not on the right course of development and prosperity.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.