When it comes to higher education in Pakistan, two fundamental ground realities need to be appreciated. First, there is a severe lack of understanding about what various disciplines mean, in terms of knowledge, career options and the potential impact on society. There is a substantial gap between the needs of society and adequate workforce present to address those challenges. Society as a whole does not understand what the role of numerous disciplines in shaping a better and a more sustainable future is.
The second fact, whether we like it or not, relates to the strong roles parents of students play in choosing their higher education paths. The pressure to become a doctor or an engineer is often not based on the thought, passion or ideas of the student. Instead, social pressures, ranging from persuasion to threats to coercion, dictate the choice. The result is a graduate who lacks passion, desire to innovate and the ability to make lasting contributions. In their defence, parents would argue that their decision comes from economic arguments and their experience. Yet, as economic realities of the world have evolved, so have education models. The insistence on pursuing particular degrees, and in institutions that have failed to evolve with time, does not create engaged citizens that society needs.
The parents of students, on the one hand, are unable to understand why we need to emphasise problem-based learning, open-ended questions and creative thought, and on the other, fail to appreciate the need for science students to understand history, ethics and tools in social sciences to become effective in their own disciplines. University education that takes the student into the foray of broad education, on written and oral expression, ethical decisionmaking and creative process and inquiry, are therefore met with deep suspicion. The irony is that what we offer the students is based largely on models developed in Europe a century ago, and the so-called creators of these narrow models of education shunned these approaches and moved on long ago.
Recognising that parental pressure comes with good intentions and is not going away anytime soon, the responsibility lies on the university to educate parents about why they are moving away from the tunnel-vision model of education and why this change is desperately needed. Universities have to educate the parents of prospective students through seminars, outreach, debates and discussions to illustrate why a graduate of a university, be it in the natural or social sciences, needs to be prepared to deal with complex issues of our time and be globally competitive, not just in core knowledge but also in understanding ethical, social, aesthetic and technical grand challenges of our time. The parents will, and rightfully so, be concerned about the career opportunities for their children. Here, the university should take a multi-pronged approach. First, the university should emphasise the need for knowledge and inquiry, not just information. Second, the university should also make a case that the sole purpose of going to a university, cannot, and should not, be to get a job. Instead, it is to enlighten the mind and the soul, to create a more mature, rational and engaged citizen. Third, the university should illustrate that modern society in Pakistan and on a global scale does not just need doctors and engineers, but professionals in a spectrum of disciplines, in social and natural sciences. Finally, perhaps the strongest argument the university should make is about innovation. A good graduate is not bound by the career options that already exist, but is ready to create one (or many) that bring out the best in him or her.
Engagement with parents is not just needed to break the mental silos of our time; it is also needed to bridge the gulf between academia and society. As the academics will engage with parents, they will also get to understand the socioeconomic challenges that are worthy of intellectual pursuit and inquiry. The university will then, hopefully, be able to get closer to its mission of creating a better society, and not just regurgitating what is already in the textbooks. - Express Tribune