PAKISTANI universities are not contributing enough in the areas of research and development or to the knowledge-based economy. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend. For one, the environment of educational campuses is not conducive to intellectual pursuit, and in the lecture halls critical discourse is virtually considered a sin. The problem is that state and society demand too much from our education system that is purposeless.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s words amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking as he addressed a seminar of the National Security Division recently, saying that universities can contribute to developing a national security paradigm in Pakistan. The prime minister is well aware of the state of higher education in Pakistan and has himself established an educational institute in the hopes of generating graduates. He must be aware of the state of academic affairs and the level of intellectual capacity in our universities. It would have been better had he recommended building up the dwindling intellectual capacity at our universities as critical to the country’s national security priorities. Pakistan ranked 98th in 2020 on the Good Country Index, which measures the contributions of nations to humanitarian well-being. On the same index, Pakistan’s score in ‘science & technology’ was 91, which cannot be termed satisfactory even by South Asian standards.
This is not only about public-sector universities; private educational institutes are also producing graduates of the same quality even if their attire is different and their communication skills better. After all, their thinking pattern is hardly dissimilar. At the other end, madressahs have their own sets of problems in terms of education, research and critical discourse.
Private universities have become money-minting enterprises and they adopt all possible marketing tactics to attract students of privileged classes. For them, knowledge production is not a priority. They promote an apolitical atmosphere on campus that includes not only a complete ban on political activities but also encourages certain political and social narratives, which suit the security establishment. When a university in Lahore expelled two students for a proposal followed by hugging on campus, it reflected a mindset that was concerned more about its ‘reputation’ and the prospects of attracting business rather than ensuring freedom for its students.
The state desires to control the thoughts of its citizens.
The state desires to have control over the thinking process of its citizens to instil in them a submissive attitude. Power elites deem politics, especially dissent, a negative trait for the youth and prefer ‘depoliticised’ individuals who don’t question their power and might. With this goal in their sights, they do not bother much about how the controlled environment at the campuses kills creativity and intellectual capacity.
Recent interaction with educated youth in Punjab, Sindh and KP made it clear that the absence of critical discourse and an apolitical atmosphere on campuses are not only creating anxiety and insecurity among the youth regarding their future but also inculcating in them a sense of victimhood. The youth have ambitions for their careers but they don’t have a plan and are not prepared for life’s challenges ahead. This uncertainty leads to visions of a nightmarish future, and most of them blame their teachers and the poor quality of education they receive for this. In particular, they are not satisfied with the scholarship and expertise of their teachers. Many youths complained that their teachers hardly update their own knowledge of the subjects they teach and also discourage students from asking questions or voicing criticism inside the classroom.
The youth are developing a narrow worldview, one which is mostly based on skewed and irrational narratives they absorb from the social and mainstream media. The proportion of those who train their minds to think critically is very low. In the absence of any critical or interactive educational practice, the sense of victimhood is only enhanced — something that lends itself to believing in conspiracy theories. State-led propaganda and constant glorification of the past only makes matters worse and leads them further away from the path of critical thinking. Indeed, our leadership itself has often been seen to encourage ‘self-pity’ through promoting dramas that are based on fictional depictions of historical characters. The youth blame the ruling elites of the Muslim world including Pakistan for the loss of Muslim glory.
A number of students from the tribal districts of KP and Balochistan have a bitter opinion about the establishment and religious groups and parties. The reasons are understandable, as they have suffered the consequences of extensive conflicts in their regions. A good number of educated youths have moderate views about religion and don’t agree with the agendas of radical groups, but faith still shapes their worldview. For them, religion is an issue of identity and they believe that the Muslims are suffering because of their ignorance and that glory can be achieved through practising a moderate version of Islam. Alternative views are missing on campuses and among many students there is a craving for perspectives which can broaden their horizons.
However, those who are inclined towards radicalism and extremist groups have power and their links with like-minded teachers help them to control the narrative. Nobody can challenge or disagree with them. The radical segments think of themselves as the custodians of Pakistan’s ideology and identify with establishment narratives. Not content with their current strategy, they have more radical ambitions for achieving ‘glory’ and for defeating the ‘enemies’ of the Muslim world. This is a frightening scenario as it indicates that human resource for extremist and militant groups is still available on our campuses.
An aptitude for or interest in research is sorely lacking in the teachers and students in universities. This is quite evident as the research publications of many private and public universities simply don’t qualify to be presented at academic fora. The prime minister’s wish for our universities to contribute towards developing a national security paradigm is nothing less than asking for the moon.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2021