Intensive measures are required to improve the quality of higher education so that the graduates are skilled enough for employability. This was stated by Federal Minister for Federal Education and Profession Training Shafqat Mahmood while addressing the Vice Chancellors Committee meeting held on Friday.
The meeting was presided over by Chairman VCs’ Committee Dr Muhammad Ali and attended by Chairman HEC Tariq Banuri and the heads of all public and private universities, either in person or through video-conference. The meeting aimed to reflect upon academic, administrative, and financial issues facing the higher education institutions in the country.
Addressing the meeting, Mahmood said there is a need to ensure that the faculty is qualified and the curriculum is up-to-date. He also stressed the relevance of education to make the graduates skilled for employability.
He observed that the public and private sector universities are facing a number of issues, which need to be addressed. He added that the Government is cognizant of these issues. He said the access of students to education is continuously improving, however the quality should not be compromised. He urged the private universities to be mindful of maintaining quality while expanding their networks and establishing sub-campuses.
Mahmood underlined that the education imparted in the higher education institutions must also be aligned with the market needs to make the graduates employable. He said the Government is successfully running a skill training program based on six months courses. He added that the majority of students acquiring skill training are already graduates who require additional skills other than their degrees to get jobs.
The Minister said the Government realize that the universities must be autonomous to cope with administrative and managerial challenges. He noted that different issues of universities face delays at various levels due to lack of autonomy. “We want to enhance autonomy as much as we can.” However, he also stressed the importance of accountability which needs to be ensured for autonomy. He said the higher education institutions must enforce discipline.
Mahmood also said that the Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarships were a game changer in the sense that the Government was committed to supporting students from low income families. He asked the universities to supplement it with scholarships from their own funds. With this support, universities should also ensure that those who can afford the education are asked to contribute fully to the costs.
He said this is the Vice Chancellors duty to provide their students with an environment conducive for studies. He urged the Vice Chancellors to provide the Government guidance on the issue pertaining to restoration of student unions. “A great responsibility lies on our shoulders to take Pakistan forward.” He also commented on the pension-related problems faced by retired university employees, saying the entire pension system must be reconfigured.
In his opening remarks, Chairman HEC Tariq Banuri underlined that critical issues, like harassment on campuses, have emerged in the higher education scenario. “We cannot allow any issue to pollute the learning environment at our universities. As educators, the responsibility lies upon all of us to provide a safe and productive environment to our students.
He stressed the need for the harassment committees to work for resolution of the complaints.
He shared with the academic senior management that the Prime Minister was sympathetic of the situation created by financial constraints. HEC had requested Rs. 20 billion to help ease the difficulty and the Finance Division has already approved Rs. 5 billion. The moot appreciated the Government’s Rs. 5 billion grant for higher education institution facing dire financial difficulties in the preceding months.
He also emphasized taking urgent measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) which has turned into a worldwide epidemic. He said HEC has issued its guidelines related to safety of students, adding that tangible measures are required to safeguard students and provide them with a safe and productive environment.
In his welcome remarks, Chairman Vice Chancellors Committee Dr. Muhammad Ali said it is obligatory upon the university heads to sensitize students and create awareness about COVID-19. He said harassment is a very sensitive issue and all the Vice Chancellors are on board regarding the need for steps to address it. He observed that the authorities dealing with harassment issues must be very careful of false allegations while ensuring punishment to the real culprits. He thanked the Government for allocating additional amount for universities.
Maleha Hussain, Executive Director Mehergarh briefed the Vice Chancellors about the gravity of sexual harassment challenge. She said sexual harassment is considered a taboo in Pakistani society, which is why many of cases are suppressed due to stigmas associated with it. The surge of harassment cases in universities is a matter of grave concern. She said the lack of implementation of HEC’s anti-harassment policy has rendered the challenge severer. She informed the Vice Chancellors that HEC is revising its policy on harassment to make it more effective and feasible.
Coordinator PIMS Prof Dr Naseem Akhtar shared a detailed presentation on preventive measures to deal with COVID-19 by creating awareness among faculty and students. She said the virus spreads due to respiratory droplets released when the patients sneeze or cough as well as through contact with the virus-infected patients and things. She said the symptoms of infection include cough, flu, fever, and difficulty in breathing.
All the Vice Chancellors took part in the discussions, expressing their views on the issues pertaining to restoration of student unions, funding formula, access and quality, university autonomy, and sexual harassment. The also deliberated on the steps needed to prevent spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and address sexual harassment challenge. They said the issue of restoration of student unions must be decided on the basis of results produced by student bodies in the past. They emphasized practical steps to avoid harassment cases in the future. Expressing grave concern over illegitimate political control over universities, they demanded the government to end political interference in academic as well as administrative affairs of universities.