Who’s fault is it anyway?

Good quality higher education is expensive and hence available to a select lucky few. We speak to Dr Sohail Naqvi, a student, teacher, PHD scholar and LUMS VC to understand the problems and possible solutions within Pakistan's higher education system.

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The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice. – Brian Herbert.

In Pakistan, we usually hear sentiments that will translate Herbert’s quote into: The capacity to learn is the amount of money you have, the ability to learn is dependent on your teachers and the willingness to learn stems out of the potential job prospects. With such an environment it becomes difficult to find the problem, get to the root of it and propose remedies to these identified issues.

Because of this confusion, it means that the status quo continues along with all its issues. In modern times, education has morphed into a commoditized business than being  a means to gaining enlightenment or learning. Amidst such persistent mayhem, Profit reached out to a student, a teacher, a PhD scholar, a former HEC official and a Vice Chancellor of one of the leading educational institutions in Pakistan. All this is one man, Dr. Sohail Naqvi.

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Dr. Naqvi received his early education from Cadet College Hasan Abdal and earned his BSc, MSc and PhD degrees (all in Electrical Engineering) from Purdue University, USA. He served as an Assistant and Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, USA, before returning to Pakistan in 1995 to join the Faculty of Electronics at the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Technology (GIKI).

He remained at GIKI until end of 1999 as Professor and Dean. He joined the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002 and became its Executive Director in 2004. In July 2013, Dr. Naqvi joined Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) as its fourth Vice Chancellor.

While at University of New Mexico, Dr. Naqvi introduced innovation in methods of diffractive optics and added a patent to his credits. During his 8-year tenure as Executive Director of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) he helped develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for the revival of the university education sector of Pakistan.

He also worked with high-tech startups and oversaw the development and implementation of several HEC programs worth over Rs 15 billion. He was also member of the Human Resource Development at Ministry of Science and Technology, IT&T Division, Pakistan.

The unifying theme throughout his career has been higher education. All this experience gave him rich insight and knowledge of problems plaguing the higher education sector of the country and allowed him to get a deeper understanding of their micro and macroeconomic implications. However, he continues to maintain a positive outlook for the students and people of Pakistan and stays true to the potential of the country instead of its pitfalls.

His transition from a student to a faculty member and then from a management position at an international institution to a Pakistani one reinforced his belief in the role of universities in the development of any economy. In his own words, “Universities and higher education are responsible for building the capacity for the country towards objectives aligned with the national objectives. University is a multidisciplinary institute by definition and its responsibilities stem accordingly.”

His current position as the VC includes academics, teaching faculty, and research among others. “Higher education at the level of the university goes to the core foundation of pushing the boundaries, disseminating ideas and setting new boundaries. It’s also responsible for services that encompass all its dealings with its stakeholders and community, industry, government, policy makers and all other aspects that allow you to excel in each of these domains.”

He considers the choosing and development of students from their admission to their graduation a responsibility of the university. “The core role in this is of the faculty. The support system, the environment, the landscape to produce productive members of the society lies with the faculty and then there is also research that ventures into new areas.”

In an educational institution, you are always striving to improve and that can only happen if every segment of the university is consolidating towards it. He said that the decisions in the university are not made at a single point, but are rather a combined decision of several entities.

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Mentioning his own experience at LUMS, he said the measures that were intended to bring LUMS at par with international institutions, starting with the elimination of their own admission test in favor of the internationally recognized Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs).

He accentuates that there are lots of brilliant minds in the country that are not able to receive quality education due to financial limitations. To cater to this, LUMS – being a non-profit organization, has carried out extensive campaigning to inform the students that money should not be a problem if they are determined in exercising their skills to learn more. He informed that there are numerous merit and need-based scholarships being offered to students.

“At the end of the day, good things cost money, and we are proud of the fact that we lose money.” He says it with delight in his voice that LUMS is home to numerous students belonging to diversified backgrounds, but with one unifying factor that is their ability and academic performance.

While this seems to be a positive move in a country where education has become a business, it still begs the question of where the financing needs of LUMS are fulfilled. To answer this question, Dr. Naqvi said, “That’s the million-dollar question. It comes from the support of the community which includes everybody out there, individuals, corporations, associations, philanthropists and everyone.”

He said that there are two sides to the story, capital expenditure and operational expenditure, from infrastructure to all capital proceedings are entirely financed through these contributions. “On the operational side we try to keep the burden minimum on the tuition costs.” He is sure that these inflows will continue.

Quoting the example of MIT and Stanford universities, he said, “All the top universities of the world are operating this way. The only difference is that the governments also play their role in this process and that is extremely important.” However, he does not dismiss the importance of balancing the books. “We wish to do so much more. We wish to have more international speakers, more workshops and so many other things. But at the end of the day you need to balance your books and budget.”

Despite being a widely recognized business institution LUMS failed to make part of the HEC rankings announced in February 2016. In response to this, Dr. Naqvi said, “As per HEC rankings 50 percent of the student have to be studying business for a university to be classified as a business university. In the case of LUMS, less than 30 percent of the total student body studies business and therefore it is not classified as a business university.”

During his time in HEC, he attempted to rectify this issue to a certain extent and achieved some measure of success. “I am talking about the decade long efforts whereby HEC did issue many research scholarships.” Considering that he has had experience in HEC himself, he continued to elaborate the government’s role and its fulfillment. “I am not saying that the government is not doing anything, they are not doing as much they should be.”

Speaking about the government, there does seem a non-ending problem routine where education is consistently neglected or at least seems to be low on the priority list. The question is raised how educational reform at the university level can produce any change in the higher echelons of government level.

To this the vice chancellor said, “The minimum education requirement for any government official is a bachelor’s degree. So, when you produce change at that level, the whole country automatically benefits from it. Everyone reaching that position would have that much higher education and by making the educational environment better, you are definitely inculcating change at the higher levels too.”

Layout 1 To explain the continued failure of any visible change then, he said that it is not only the education that matters when it comes to the governance and policy making of an economy. “When there is no accountability and the way the system works also contributes to all the problems we see in the education system of our country.”

He laments that when almost half of the school going age children are out of school, the problems are inevitable. So the remedial action starts from there but the improvements in the higher education do not go waste even if levels of the government are to be considered. He is also optimistic and happy about the changing technical landscape of Pakistan. “It is true that a few years ago the demand of certain skill sets was a lot more than their availability but now people are becoming more aware, students are being trained and skilled workforce is being produced in the country.”

His position as VC in LUMS also brings him across situations where the graduates of LUMS are perceived as unwilling to accept certain job offers or do tasks because they believe they are from a better university and the task at hand is below them. “We accept this criticism and are working with our students and faculty on this issue. However, there needs to be some understanding that the students here are definitely among the most intelligent lot of the country and they deserve a certain environment to fully utilize their skills.”

In the current state of the economy it might not always be possible for such conditions to exist, so the students are also being prepared to take the lead in creating such environments instead of refraining from the jobs.

An inherent lack of entrepreneurship in the country, despite the presence of such excellent business and economics educational institutes in the country is indeed baffling. To explain why it is so, Dr. Naqvi responded with his signature positive outlook, “Even though the students of LUMS and such institutions are not seen to enter entrepreneurship immediately after their graduation, they do have this ability and calling to enter into their own businesses sometime in the future. To quote one instance, the class of 1990, 27 out of 30 students are heading their own businesses now. So the motivation is there but sometimes it takes time to turn into tangible output.”

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Entrepreneurship is not the only thing deficient in the country, the number of PhD scholars is very low too. As far as LUMS is concerned, the vice chancellor said, “I don’t have the exact statistics but a large proportion of sciences students go for their doctorates.

 

The students of humanities show a mixed trend while business students often stick to their professional lives.” However, several PhD scholars who finish their degrees from LUMS return as members teaching faculty in the university.

At this point, Dr. Naqvi also mentioned his time in HEC and said that the reforms and research funding scholarships in that time led to a notable increase in the number of students pursuing PhDs and from 2008 to 2012, the number of PhDs in Pakistan was fourth highest in the world.

He also shared the plan of LUMS to add another school in its family, for Education. Dr. Naqvi said, “It is not going to be a teacher training school. Its focus will be on the level of policy making and management of education.” So far, the school of humanities (MAGSHSS) has the largest number of students, closely followed by the sciences (SBASSE), then the business school (SDSB) and in last is the law school (SAHSOL). “Our law school is young so it has a smaller number of students as of now.”

Not only is he proud of his work and remains hopeful for all students across the country. He feels privileged for being a teacher and member of management of such a prestigious institution. Rubbing away all notions about changes in student-teacher relationships, he stressed that the integrity between students and teachers is as pure as it was decades ago, irrespective of whatever people may perceive.

“Some of my students are now working right here in LUMS. And every time I see them or meet them, it is just like parents meeting their children. The beauty and respect in this relationship has always remained intact.” He said that you can ask any student and they will tell you of the impact his or her teachers have had in their lives.

To conclude his opinion with regards to all the complaints about the flaws in the education system, he refuses to put the blame on any one segment of society. “We as a society are all responsible.

It’s the entire infrastructure, the laws, and the accountability mechanisms that need to be improved. Provision of the support system and conducive environment to each and all in the society is essential if the education sector of Pakistan is to grow and its benefits are to be reaped.” He never let go of his faith in the students and teachers, as well as those at the helm of affairs. He maintained that it is everyone’s responsibility and all are to be blamed for the pitfalls in the education system and everybody needs to play their part for its betterment.