One of the most laudable decisions Prime Minister Imran Khan took after taking office was to avoid rushing into trying to reverse everything his predecessors had done. Among the beneficiaries of this policy is the higher education reform agenda.
Five years earlier, the PML-N government had opted for the zero reform path, choosing to do basically nothing that would disrupt the diverse special interests that dominate public sector universities across the country. This means that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is left to the academic bureaucracy that dominates the organization.
At the end of the PML-N term in 2018, the process of selecting a new chairman of the HEC came to a conclusion. In part, because of missed opportunities for reform, and partly because of the relative confidence level of the selection process, a large number of highly qualified candidates are applying for the role. Finally, Dr. Tariq Banuri was elected as the chairman of HEC.
Originally a member of Central Superior Services, Dr Banuri received his PhD from Harvard University. He worked in various international think-tank organizations and institutions. He founded the Institute for Sustainable Development Policy in the early 1990s, and later became a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Banuri’s last assignment at the United Nations was as Director of the Sustainable Development Division. Over the past decade or so, he has been a professor at the University of Utah. When he came to HEC in 2018, he did so with hesitation, having reached the top of every mountain he climbed in his illustrious career.
Dr Atta ur Rehman, former chair of the HEC where the bureaucracy was originally employed, and Dr Banuri represent two different philosophies in terms of their vision for higher education. Dr Atta believes that more graduates, more universities and more funding for universities are essential for Pakistan’s future. Dr Banuri believes that graduates who cannot write coherent paragraphs, universities that cannot maintain quality in the classroom, and unlimited funding without accountability are just as bad as fewer graduates, fewer universities, and limited funding. Since becoming chairman of the HEC, he has worked to transform the potential of Pakistani universities, from degree-granting bodies to institutions of learning. This is a tough task.
The government’s hasty and unfavorable approach in its bid to move away from Tariq Banuri cannot tarnish the reputation of its decades-long struggle for a better country and a better world. But this has revealed how much more difficult it is to engage in actual reform, than to talk about it. The failures at HEC are not the only ones to hit Pakistan, but offer instructive insights into the reality of the word reform, and the challenges facing real reformers.
In every area, the status quo exists because it generates rents or benefits to people who would otherwise not be able to get what they are getting. So, for example, the reason PIA is so bad at being an airline is because it is filled with people who have no business running an airline. These people were the most important stakeholders in the PIA ‘reform’. This includes pilots and flight crew, but also includes flight engineers, and ground staff. It also includes cooks and gardeners and airport check-in staff and baggage handlers.
Together, these ecosystems of individuals, subgroups and groups make up what we call ‘Resistance’. Now, remember, unlike you (the newspaper reader), or me (the open writer), The Resistance doesn’t just engage in conversation about PIA for laughter. For The Resistance, PIA reform is a matter of life and death. When the reformers talk about the PIA’s world-beating employee to aircraft ratio, what they are really saying is: fire some people. Those ‘few people’ are The Resistance. They will not give up their work as easily as the newspaper readers put down the newspaper, or opinion writers will find other topics to write about. No, ma’am. The resistance will fight for its work. To death.
Higher education is much more serious than PIA. PIA are several aircraft. Higher education is dozens of very large public sector universities, dozens of private universities, and millions of students. And of course, the teachers. Thousands of teachers.
Are Pakistani university teachers any good? Just as the PIA has some good pilots and maybe even some high-performing cabin crew, there are also some good university teachers in Pakistan. But the ratio between the bad and the good is overwhelming. At PIA, this means an airline that is completely broken, bankrupt and cannot be redeemed. In higher education, this means damaged, damaged, and irredeemable universities. Dozens of them. A failed PIA will make Pakistan less attractive to investors, less competitive and less accessible. But is the higher education sector failing? A failing higher education sector could make Pakistan less state and less of a society.
Have an honest conversation with any employer and they’ll tell you: graduates of Pakistan’s education system are uncompetitive, have no salable cognitive or non-cognitive skills, and can’t innovate or operate out of the box.
Dr Banuri’s agenda as a reformer is extraordinary and unmistakable: improve the quality of teaching and assessment, so that Pakistani university graduates leave the system with skills that make them employable.
To enact reforms, one must always anger people. In higher education, three generations of mediocrity and disability need to be shaken, moved, beaten and taken out, never to be seen again. There is only one way to approach these reforms. With a clear head, and clear eyes. That’s the path Dr Banuri took for nearly two and a half years as chairman of the HEC. The reforms imposed a heavy price on status quo bearers. The old guard fought back. He didn’t want his privileges to be challenged.
The giving of free scholarships is replaced with accuracy. The result is less scholarships. Free grants for centers of excellence that should be replaced with questions about delivery and performance. The result is silence. Lifetime free work is challenged with questions about teaching and publications, and with questions about the quality of those publications. The result was rebellion. The rebellion has succeeded in replacing due process with a pathetic and degrading campaign of slander. Several things can tarnish the good name of world champions like Dr Banuri. But the whole world is watching what Pakistan is doing to its talents: young and old.
He starves his children for a high-quality education, and he punishes parents with slander. In doing so, it values the mediocrity and the meek, and maintains its place as an economically challenged third world country that cannot assemble a single narrative of sustainable and coherent advantage. In any field.
From the production and use of vaccines, to compliance with the international financial system, to the acceptance of hegemonic thugs, to the very low levels of learning from elementary school to university – the roots of Pakistan’s misfortune are its own consequences. The essence of each is The Resistance. Strives steadfastly to keep things as they are.
Years from now, Prime Minister Imran Khan will be remembered for many good things. But he will also be remembered for how he stood with The Resistance. Hold on not to change. Resistance to reform. Resistance to accountability. Tehreek-e-Insaf? Saying the full name of his own party out loud must feel like a cruel joke, even to someone full of faith and confidence like PM Khan. What a shame. Not so much for Dr Banuri, but for the millions of students who were poorer by his departure.
The author is an analyst and commentator.