Putting Sargodha University Back On Track
It was once the 8th best university in Pakistan. But years of mismanagement, predatory profiteering and disregard for law took Sargodha University to the brink of disaster. Vice Chancellor Dr Ishtiaq looks to reverse the damage.
Can you please briefly tell us about your educational and professional career? How and why did you join academia after saying goodbye to journalism?
After completing MPhil from Area Study Centre, Quaid-i-Azam University in 1990, I started my professional career as Editorial Assistant at The Muslim, the only English paper published from Islamabad then. In 1993, I joined The Nation as a diplomatic correspondent and reported the rise of Taliban, the conflict in Swat and human rights issues. The media at that time was not as financially rewarding as it is now and my PhD from QAU was also nearing completion. So, I shifted to academia in 1996. Since then, I have spent 11 years in global academia, including five years on Pakistan Chair at Oxford University and six years as IR faculty and Vice Chair at Eastern Mediterranean University in Turkish Cyprus. I Have spent the remaining 12 years at QAU, including as its Director of School of Politics and International Relations, and the last over two-and-a-half years at Sargodha University.
After serving such prestigious educational institutions like Oxford and QAU, why did you join a regional and relatively young university as vice chancellor?
When my Oxford tenure was coming to an end in 2015, the Punjab government announced several positions of vice chancellors at public sector universities in the province. I had a couple of lucrative options abroad, but I decided to serve my homeland at a university located in the region where I was born. It is a small token of paying back for all the opportunities this great nation has provided me as a person of humble origins, especially the distinction of representing Pakistan at Oxford. So, I consciously chose to apply only for the post of vice chancellor at Sargodha University. I submitted a Letter of Intent along with my application, specifying how I would to contribute to its academic excellence on the basis of my vast academic exposure. This letter remains the basis of what I do at SU.
That the main challenges you faced soon after joining Sargodha University and what strategy did you adopt to resolve them?
I had some idea beforehand about the state of affairs at Sargodha University before assuming the charge as its vice chancellor in December 2016. I was able to identify key challenges relatively quickly, including the sheer absence of the rule of law, the reckless expansion of academic programs and the acute nature of patronage-based administrative structure. To overcome these challenges and prepare the ground for implementing preliminary reforms, we began with a new vision statement, which was to make the university a trend setter of higher education in the country. The values around which the ensuing quest for quality education was to be pursued were pronounced as professionalism, integrity, rule of law, inclusiveness, compassion and social responsibility. Our initial and subsequent reforms at SU have been guided by these overarching ideas to ensure that no compromise is made on the pursuit of quality education to students, and both the faculty and staff are provided with enabling conditions for the purpose. A major challenge for universities located in semi-urban areas like Sargodha is the lack of exposure. Hence, our main strategy at SU has been to extend all possible opportunities to its students and teachers.
Sargodha University was among the top ten HEC-ranked universities during its early years; however, it earned a bad name during 2008-16. To you, what were the main reasons behind its downfall?
How a reputable college-turned-university that was 8th in HEC ranking in 2007 fell to the 18th spot in 2015 is a long and worrisome story. But let me just share the findings of an HEC audit report on the period, which is currently the basis of a NAB reference against the former vice chancellor.To start with, the management of the time clearly preferred quantity over quality, recklessly franchising education to private parties with predatory financial interests. In the process, five so-called private-public partnership sub-campuses were set up in 2012 in major cities like Lahore and Faisalabad, including two without the mandatory Syndicate approval, and hundreds of private college affiliations were granted.
I was able to identify key challenges relatively quickly, including the sheer absence of the rule of law, the reckless expansion of academic programs and the acute nature of patronage-based administrative structure
Two official sub-campuses were also established with own resources without caring about HEC’s preconditions regarding the availability of required faculty and facilities. Unnecessary programs, faculties and departments were launched without assessing their need for higher education or job market. Instead of synergising academia with local economy, wasteful industrial projects were started. Irregularities in faculty or staff appointments further contributed to academic deterioration. The list goes on. Clearly, I inherited an institution that was in a great mess, clearing which has been a daunting task indeed.
What steps did you take to enhance the standard and quality of education at Sargodha University? Any specific initiatives taken to build the capacity of teaching and non-teaching staff? Any specific facilities and programs to maximize research and academic productivity of students and young faculty?
We have made major interventions to change the status quo and achieved demonstrable outcomes in terms of institutional repute and quality education. Following structural reforms and development initiatives are worth mentioning:
- Development project worth Rs.1.54 billion funded by HEC to provide state of the art facilities for advanced research, multimedia development, China studies and other academic programs.
- Closure of private campuses and bringing college affiliations down from over 600 to around 270 at present.
- Appointment or promotion of nearly 300 qualified faculty members on merit in successive Selection Board and Syndicate meetings.
- Revamping the Office of Research, Innovation and Commercialization (ORIC) by incentivizing research publications, projects and international travel; and creating inter-disciplinary research groups.
- Collaborations with reputed international institutions, including with leading agricultural universities of China in precision agriculture, citrus and sugarcane research and dry-land agriculture as well as the agreement to establish the fifth Confucius Institute in the country.
- Academic consolidation by merging overlapping faculties and departments, closing unnecessary programs, curriculum development of market-oriented disciplines, and foreign refereeing from Top 500 world universities for better faculty recruitment and research assessment.
- Better service delivery through user-friendly website, including online admissions, and inclusive management by devolving powers and responsibilities to capable colleagues in both academia and administration.
- Promotion of critical thinking among students by regularly organizing major national and international conferences as well as an annual literary festival.
- Gearing up sports and co-curricular activities, including concerts, theatres and festivals, managed by various Student Societies, coupled with awareness campaigns via posters, FM radio and digital screens to inculcate ethical values among students.
- Career development opportunities to students by establishing Career Development Centre, Business Incubation Centre, three e-Rozgaar centres for free-lance entrepreneurship, and internship program for meritorious students and graduates.
What is your role in taking Sargodha University among top 500 Asian universities in QS Ranking?
Leadership is about change. So, my role has merely been to steer the process of reforms, the real credit goes to our dedicated team of faculty and staff members for implementing these reforms and realising their fruitful outcomes. The fact that there is almost zero politics at SU, both among students and teachers, has helped us a great deal in implementing major reforms without much problem. What I have simply done is to strictly impose the rule of law, comply with the guidelines of HEC as our parent organisation in letter and spirit, and take all decisions through statutory bodies, especially the Selection Board and the Syndicate, which have met 8 times each in the past two years to ensure faculty appointments on merit and resolve pending issues through collective wisdom, respectively.
What is the annual budget of SU and do you think that recent cuts by the HEC would affect your annual budgeting?
Luckily, SU again has a surplus estimated budget worth Rs 4.04 billion for the Financial Year 2019-20. So, we shall remain relatively immune from the impact of cuts in HEC’s development funds and recurring grants for public sector universities. Somewhat negative impact may be visible in faculty hiring and research output, and we may also become a bit cautious in taking some new initiatives. SU generates a bulk of its revenue from own sources, including student fees, college affiliations and private exams, despite having probably the lowest fee structure in the province. Its financial viability is a result of our judicious and transparent approach to managing finances. Major recoveries from the owners of former sub-campuses in Lahore and Mandi Bahauddin after their plea bargain with NAB has also added to the university’s exchequer. The two official sub-campuses at Bhakkar and Mianwali will soon become universities, and Medical College, a major financial liability, may become a degree awarding institution or be placed under Faisalabad Medical University. We will therefore be financially better in managing only the Main Campus, besides the Agriculture College located separately, and the Engineering and Technology College, the separate campus for which is under construction. Moreover, the Finance and Planning Committee has recently taken important steps to ensure sustained financial viability.
What changes do you feel are required in the administration of higher education in Punjab province?
Academia is about free inquiry and critical thinking. As autonomous institutions, universities can flourish only in an environment free from excessive bureaucratic control of other government institutions. A committee of Vice Chancellors set up on the directions of the Chancellor/Governor Punjab has recently come up with several recommendations in this regard, which I fully endorse. Accordingly, among others, a separate secretariat in the Chancellor’s office should be established to directly sort out university requests and approvals as per law; necessary amendments be made in the Charters of the Universities to ensure that appointments of Registrar, Treasurer and Controller of Examination are made by the Syndicate; and the practice that Rules of Business of the Government supersede the Charter of the Universities be stopped.
Where do you see SU in the next five years and what is the importance of rankings in your opinion?
All great things happen due to sheer imagination, on the basis of which we conceive an idea and then work tirelessly for its realization. That’s precisely our approach at SU. With the pace of current reforms uninterrupted, SU will be a much more modern institution five years down the lane. With far less students than the current number of over 26,000, the faculty size more or less the same at around 700, and academic programs and faculties having been further consolidated, the university will admit better students and produce more competitive graduates. There is tremendous scope for building upon the current gains in research productivity reflected annually in the significant increase in the number of research publications and several folds increase in the number of PhD and MPhil graduates. Likewise, tangible progress is possible in other crucial spheres, i.e. quality teaching, knowledge sharing and global outlook – which, together with research productivity, constitute the key determinants of international rankings. The QS and Times Higher Education are two major international ranking agencies, whose annual ratings of global and regional universities are important for gauging the improvement in the academic profile of any university.
What changes are required in our higher education system at the national level? Do you think that current system of appointment of vice chancellors is perfect?
Let me say with confidence that the current leadership at both HEC and Punjab HEC has the requisite global knowledge, professional experience and personal motivation to bring about the much-needed progressive reforms in the higher education sector of Pakistan. At SU, we are particularly excited about the most recent initiative of the HEC to launch the 2-year Associate Degree Program (ADP) and phase out BA/BSc programs this year, and also phase out MA/MSc programs next year so that the 4-year under-graduate program is implemented at all universities. The ADP would offer both general education and marketable skills to students, enabling the graduates to duly contribute to national economic productivity and inclusive growth. It, thus, provides a lasting solution to our key national challenge, i.e. the youth bulge, in view of the widening gap between higher education and youth employment. However, like Punjab University and others, we do have some concerns regarding the implementation mode of ADP, as the HEC has not done enough preparatory work pertaining to curriculum development, faculty and infrastructure development at private and government colleges before launching this initiative. Yet, for this major transition in our higher education system to succeed, we are willing to work closely with the HEC.
Arslan Haider is Editor Reportingof Academia Magazine prior tojoining Academia he has worked with leading national dailies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org