The Mess That Is Education: Is Only HEC To Blame?


The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan has always been considered a regulatory body for higher educational institutes in Pakistan. This often translates to the idea that, “If there are problems in higher education or in institutions affiliated with higher education, the HEC must be at fault”. Possibly.

The problems that Dr Faisal Bari outlined in his article (Dawn, 19-4-19) suggest that PhD holders in Pakistan are essentially products of a failed higher education system that was not thought through and, in a rush to create comparable institutes and partake in a global educational race, the HEC feverishly doled out PhD scholarships and encouraged PhD programs at local universities. This, too, implies that the HEC is at fault. Possibly.

But instead of instinctively blaming HEC and budget cuts, the question that warrants investigation requires a closer look at how and what is being questioned. Are we questioning the educational system in Pakistan, the creation and mandate given to HEC, the mismanaged education budget that has dwindled or the insipid motivational and moral attitude towards educational currency? The climate of complacency with declining standards in higher educational institutions is really the result of a torrent of prolific questions, with little or no attempt going in to providing answers. Questions such as why well-established universities in Pakistan, that have been around for over 30 years and boast of highly qualified PhD faculty, have still not been able to break into the top 500 in Times Higher Educational Index (THE). And others queries like why is it that our universities have been unable to attract international students despite all the incredible and talented foreign faculty and teaching staff available at their beck and call.

Cues From The West

In order to look for a solution, a brief study of the top 50 ranked higher educational institutes (according to THE), reveals that they are primarily in the US, UK and Australia. Though these countries are nations of native-English speakers, their educational institutes are magnets for international students from developing countries, earning them billions of dollars in revenue – Australia $32 Billion in 2018 and the US $39 Billion in 2019).

It is a known fact that many of these first-world countries, especially the US, have traditionally earmarked a significantly greater budget for fighting wars than fighting illiteracy or developing research, yet their universities are still known for churning out benchmark researches and world-class PhDs. So how does this information help us find a solution to Pakistan’s educational fiasco? It seems that the solution may not lie in either increasing or decreasing the education budget, or in HECs draconian and unrealistic expectations, rather it might just come down to the way that higher education institutions in Pakistan view the notion of research and more importantly ‘teaching’.

While teaching English at Melbourne University’s Trinity College, I recall instructing students whose first question was – why? There was never a question on what the course content was, where the class would be held or even about how I was going to teach and develop the course during the year. The only question was why. This is the typical behavior that ignites an out-of-the-box answer to what can only be safely assumed is an out-of-the-box question. The truth is that it was not the content that I relayed but the fact that I was happy to relate that made all the difference.

Teach It Right

In essence, teaching required communication between student and teacher/lecturer/professor- which means teaching is not only about being able to speak in the language/lingo that you need the student to learn, in this case English, but also the behavior you need to have when teaching.

So, in reality, it is not only what you teach but how you teach it that needs to be addressed. In conversations with highly qualified faculty members, all one hears are complaints about the poor quality of English academic writing skills and student behavior etc, with the only solution being focusing on teaching “the few that deserve to be taught”. This attitude and approach towards teaching is certainly not the fault of budget cuts, HEC, the administration, or even the students – this is the fault of not knowing the value of teaching.

Jobless PhDs, unemployed IT professionals, or sub-par engineers are either taught by bad teachers or are bad teachers themselves. This self-perpetuating cycle of incompetency has to be rectified immediately if the decline of educational standards in Pakistan is to be seriously addressed.

It all comes down to a solution that is simple, yet so complicated. HEC needs to train teachers to teach with the intent to instigate, encourage and motivate their students. The belief that anything and everything is possible is vital if students are to begin visualizing creative solutions and adopting innovative strategies to solve problems.

The first step would be to train English language teachers to teach English, so that students have access to and comprehend ideas in a language that has become a lingua franca. This language platform would help students reach out and learn not only from within the classroom but outside. English would cease to become a language – instead it would be seen as a communicative medium that has the power and potential to permeate all disciplines.

English Labs, like EL3 (English Language Learning Lab) launched at Information Technology University, are just the beginning of this nascent revolutionary strategy and what the country needs is many more labs that research, educate, innovate and create course content and teaching strategies that help students not only in English language acquisition, but ‘learning acquisition’.


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