The Vice Chancellors Committee in its recent 22nd meeting adopted 11-points declaration for the promotion of higher education in the country. The Vice Chancellors acknowledged the students as the primary stakeholders for higher education and vowed to protect their (students) right to quality education. They termed quality faculty, essential for imparting quality education and helping the students compete at global level. The meeting concluded with the request to Higher Education Commission (HEC) to review and streamline its operating procedures in order to enhance service delivery.

Focusing on institutions’ teaching and learning environments for students, Times Higher Education (THE), an reputed university ranking organization, announced Europe Teaching Ranking 2018 recently. More than 240 European universities have been ranked on the basis of a student engagement survey of 30,000 university students, which included questions on whether teaching supports critical thinking, whether classes challenge students and whether students have the opportunity to interact with staff. In addition to engagement of students, the ranking also measured student outcomes, the diversity of institutions’ environments, and the resources that universities have in order to teach effectively

The UK’s University of Oxford topped the 2018 ranking and the outcomes pillar, which draws on data about teaching reputation, graduation rate and the development of students’ skills. The second place was obtained by its local rival the University of Cambridge, which remained number one in the resources pillar i.e staff-to-student ratio, research productivity and quality of services.

The UK is the most represented country in the table with 100 institutions. Surprisingly, Spain’s Comillas Pontifical University, which is in the 51-75 band overall, topped the engagement pillar due to its students’ centric approach. Meanwhile, Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands (151-200 overall) is ranked first for environment, which measures the gender balance of staff and students.

The student-focused nature of the THE Europe Teaching Rankings means that the results differ significantly from the THE World University Rankings, which focus on research excellence on a global scale.

In Pakistan, students despite being the major stakeholder in higher education sector with enrollment of more than 1.7 million at 190 universities and 114 regional campuses, are missed out in the mainstream debate of higher education policies. They are not even consulted for any major policy decision. During 1970s, there was effective representation of students in the universities’ statutory decision making forums i.e senate and syndicate. The university campuses were centres of student activities i.e dialogues, poetry sessions, theatre performance, study circles and interaction with distinghsued speakers. Such useful activities were greatly helped in inculcating values and qualities of leadership, active citizenship, and good communication, culture of dialogue, peace, tolerance, co-existence, and harmony.

Through ban on student unions, the rights of the students were not only taken away but we also failed to provide them alternative platforms for their meaningful engagement and participation in extra-curricular activities. This gap was exploited by the extremist groups at the university campuses. Through close interaction with the public sector universities’ officials dealing with the student affairs, it was revealed that most of the students’ directorates at the universities could not support the student activities due to shortage of funds.

The Steering Committee on Higher Education also strongly recommended investment in students through provision of adequate funding to the universities award of full scholarship for the needy students.

There is also dire need to encourage academic freedom, critical thinking and analytical approach among the university students as according to Examiners’ Assessment Reports for CSS that low level of general knowledge and lack of analytical approach were among the main reasons for dismal performance of candidates in competitive exams.

National Counter Extremism Policy Guidelines 2018 developed by National Counter Terrorism Authority, also underlines importance of critical thinking at higher secondary level which is based on freedom of thought and expression as guaranteed under the Constitution of Pakistan.

The lack of facilities at the university campuses affects the students’ studies, performance and also leads towards frustration and anger among student community. In addition provision of quality education, special attention needs to be paid towards these important issues. Both the federal and provincial governments should approve such development projects on priority basis which caters the growing needs of the students i.e hostels, student service centres, libraries and class room.

The effective implementation should also be ensured over the 34 points recommendations papered by the Vice Chancellors and Director Student during Two Days Conference on Promotion of Peace and Tolerance at University Campuses held at Lahore , through active involvement of the students in various co-curricular activities, strengthening student societies, no exclusion and marginalization on the basis of ideology/race/language/gender respecting divergence of opinion/expression of thoughts through holding dialogue promotion of Social Sciences (e.g art & culture, citizenship studies, sociology, languages, humanities), addressing structural problems i.e curriculum needs to be enriched by incorporating content related to peace, tolerance, volunteerism and civic education, establishment of student service centres and psychological counselling centres, continuous faculty training, professionalism, an early identification of students at risk and undertaking special steps for counseling, guidance and creating employment opportunities for the university graduates.

Being service provider, HEC should also review SOPs related to degree attestation in order to better facilitate the students. It is also hoped that special attention would also be paid towards resolving the long pending issue of 2400 students under COMSATS-Lancaster dual degree program.

The desired results of reforming higher education in Pakistan could not be achieved without student centric policies at federal, provincial and university levels. The universities being hub of creativity, training and ideas, should equip the students with quality education, critical thinking, active & responsible citizenship and leadership qualities.

Muhammad Murtaza Noor is associated with the development and education sector for more than 18 years. He is currently working as National Coordinator with Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences Pakistan, an autonomous largest alliance of Pakistani universities.

 

The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.

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