Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Four Year Itch

The chief minister of Punjab recently announced that 32 universities in Punjab adopt the four years honors system.

For the first fifty plus years of its history Pakistan offered a Bachelors degree that required two years to be cleared, except for engineering, law, medicine and a few other degrees. 

Bachelor’s pass would have had fourteen years of education in total, unlike the rest of the world where a student would have sixteen years of education. Now the degree is four year long, has semesters and credits (number of hours spent on each subject).

This change is constructive from certain aspects- the primary rationale being that now that the Pakistani higher education system is in accord with the international standards. This has opened doors for several scholarships, admissions and credit transfers abroad.

Yet this is not enough to upgrade the Pakistani higher education. In fact the four year course has actually spelled a debacle for many Pakistani youngsters who are now either reduced to an inter-pass, done with their 2 years bachelors privately or else are trying to clear the courses that they have failed in the last few years.

Simply increasing the time limit is not enough. Most international universities have quality standards as well.
Some require that the total credits of the degree be a certain number. The total number of credits done varies among Pakistani universities. If you have a 120 credit degree and the masters in your subject requires 130- good luck. Two extra subjects in your masters can cost you thousands of dollars. Plus if your prospective university asks for American history, Mathematics, Calculus or Statistics as compulsory in Bachelors- more good luck.

The qualitative standards have to be met as well. For example in the last semester we did a course on Environmental Bio-Technology. The course outline was simpler because many in our class lacked a scientific background.

We had neither access to lab nor the technology required to study it. The major focus was on bacteria, its life and structure till the course end. Sorry to announce but this is not what Biotechnology is- no international university would accept it.

Credit transfer and semester exchanges have opened new doors for many. Yet the latter is okay, there are serious issues with the former.

To transfer credits many universities abroad do an analysis on what has been studied in each subject and might ask for the course outlines. Since most teachers and professors are not foreign qualified, don’t update their courses regularly or match their courses-the credits for such courses are not transferred.

Then again, if a course has two, one or more then four credits, the prospective university might not transfer it or might reduce it to three. Another absurdity is that some Pakistani colleges, despite the credit system, have not adopted the semester system. So you cannot apply in the middle of the year, you have to wait for the final exams.

Another issue is the course combination for which most universities give you no choice. This can mean weird things- like a Psychology major studying French compulsory and Islamic studies students studying Journalism compulsory. This means a lot of frustration and failed subjects.

You might be asking that the university administration is smarter then me, then why don’t they take care of it? The ground reality is different.

Most professors and teachers in Pakistan, even the most prestigious and experienced ones, have never studied abroad and did all their degrees under the annual system. They do not know how to make course outlines, upgrade them, and develop concepts in a very short period of time from scratch- preventing informational vomit on the faces of baffled students. Even where professors have studied abroad, in many if not most cases, they don’t seem totally committed to their educational vocation- it seems as if they’re only in the profession for personal gains, students and their future mean little or nothing to them. Many of them are on the full-time faculty of one renowned institution, but are rarely available beyond their fixed class schedules; they’re all taking heaps of other classes, as ‘visiting’ faculty members in numerous private institutions, making millions. No one has any interest in curriculum review and development on an evolutionary basis, at all.

Not only has the HEC to focus on teacher training, research and specialization of the teachers; it also has to recognize merit and try to develop some sort of positive spirit, some sense of responsibility, in existing faculties.

Again, some departments have two or three professors/teachers, the courses to be offered are thirty or so, all professional and new- can the same teachers offer them? Why should an English Literature Masters teach Business Communication, an M. Phil in Sustainable Development be forced to teach several courses to the entire Environmental Science department?

Another major concern is the so-called ‘honor degrees’ system. Abroad, honors programs are not compulsory, it is actually an honor allowed to some exceptional students, for research potential or very good grades.

Why call it honors? Because at the end of it there is a thesis involved- which in its own self is an ordeal because research is the last thing a Pakistani student is adapted to. Neither does the country have enough research supervisors, in different disciplines, who are qualified and/or able to take on the full-time responsibility of supervising theses/dissertations.

In fact several months are wasted by the students in contemplating on what to do next. The result is – many theses get rejected and a lot of time is wasted as they cannot get admitted into Masters or find a job.

The new Honors system is also very hectic. The exams are due within weeks of the semester’s start. Four or five tests, midterms, presentation and of course, a lot of understanding and attendance.

Despite all the above workload, most courses are apparently legwork for the students and offer no scholarly growth. The assignments are also too many in number and seldom enhance learning. Imagine a topic like “War of Independence” or “Atomic fission”. What do you write on it that has not been written before?

With the advent of the World Wide Web- very few assignments escape plagiarism in Pakistan. Rather than promoting copy-pasting culture, the schools need to promote critical thinking and research. Even on a topic like “War of Independence”- the teachers can help formulate original and new opinions among students.

Another dilemma is the “notes culture” in Pakistan where teachers give you slides, book photocopies or hand-written notes rather then reference books (which most of the time would be unavailable in the libraries and markets). At the end of each semester, one has hundreds of pages of such handouts. Even worse, is the system of ‘guides’ and ‘keys’, which seem to proliferate in places like Urdu Bazar, and similar low-grade markets/publishing centers—it is shocking that most of these guides/keys are recommended by teachers to students, even uptil MA/MS level, and one cannot seem to be able to pass courses without these ‘invaluable’ aids. Fact is, most of them are actually written/produced by these ‘teachers’ themselves, usually under fictitious names, and they share profits with the unscrupulous publishers. Exam questions and information is expected to be reproduced from these third-rate publications and woe to you if you haven’t bought the ‘latest’ guide/key. What is needed is that more and more original, quality textbooks by genuine scholars, should be published by the HEC and university presses, and these should be well-remunerated, so that this guide culture can be discouraged. I believe the HEC has started some sort of scheme in this regard—but how many real books/monographs etc, has it published so far? And in what areas/fields? There should be a target of at least 4-500 publications per annum, in all disciplines/areas of study, not just in a few, like sciences, engineering and economics. In the same way, how many books are published by any of the public sector university presses, in all disciplines each year? The situation is truly appalling.

Notes and guides are easy for the teacher- once made they can be given to students forever, and easier for students because they help spoon feed, though in the process prevent any deeper understanding of the subject. The teacher has to explain less, rather than read original texts and research.
And then the new tradition that an honors pass gets admitted in M Phil. Firstly this doesn’t happen in any part of the World unless the student gets exceptional grades. Secondly, M Phil is a level below PhD, many people cannot clear it. Why impose it on the masses who want to attain higher education?

Some positive aspects of the new system include (a) it has successfully targeted the bunking culture in Pakistan. You can always bunk but you face the consequences too- dropped out with a Fail or Incomplete marked; (b) The Class Presentations give the students ample public speaking exposure. Though mostly an undue hassle, since 80% of the world’s population suffers from a stage fright, it is almost unfair that they be made to follow this regimen and be marked for it!

Another setback is for the female students- who by the time they are twenty, have entered the huge force of would-be brides, leaving all transcripts behind, anytime. There are many cases in our college when a girl had just one semester left, but married and left school due to her in-laws, some forced to take a year or semester off, others coming back years later to finish their Bachelors. Plus the level of ambition and career priorities of these ladies are not in accordance to the degree. The two year Bachelors was in harmony with this marriage custom.

Some girls do the two year Bachelors privately but in most universities, this is not allowed, most remain an inter-pass.

Another tragedy is for the students coming from local matriculating system, who cannot cope up with this novel system. One can offer Ivy League standard education in Pakistan but the question is- can the students cope? They neither have the standard of English, money for notes and time- for they need to end up in the job market soon.

Is it not unfair for a young man from a poor village to be tested by international standards? The up-gradation should be at the grass root level; otherwise it will lead to chaos.

This is not a recommendation to revert to the two year Bachelors. It is an outline of some problems and a plea for HEC to help students. So that the four year experience becomes intellectually enriching and academically flourishing rather then a parade in and out of courses and a fruitless marathon of tests, exams and grades, resulting in a pointless degree.

The article has been previously published in the News International.

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