Sartaj Aziz Vice-Chancellor, Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore
Jahangir’s World Times team conducted an interview with Mr Sartaj Aziz, Vice-Chancellor, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, and asked a number of questions regarding, why our education system is failed, issues in the allocation of education budget, private universities and quality education, employment and future of the students, views regarding the devolution of HEC and the future of local PhDs in Pakistan. His interview is a torch-bearer for the candidates seeking degrees in multidimensional fields.
Jahangir’s World Times: Tell us something about your education and area of expertise?
Sartaj Aziz: After Matriculation I studied in NWFP (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). My father was a civil servant so we moved from one station to another. I passed my matriculation from D.I. Khan and stood second in the province. Then I went to Islamia College for Boys, Lahore. Later, on the advice of Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was addressing our annual prize distribution ceremony, saying that Muslims were backward in commerce and industry, I joined Hailey College of Commerce and passed my B.Com in 1949. After that I got a chance to do my Masters in Development Economics from Harvard University.
As far as my area of expertise is concerned, you can call me a development professional. Very early in my life, this was somewhere I think in class 8th or 9th before partition that I used to listen to All India Radio along with my friends. There was a Hindu teacher, who said that he often wondered about the definition of education until he found one. He said, a person is said to be educated when he knows something about everything and everything about one thing. I remembered that and began to think about that one subject about which I should have known everything. In civil service I decided to join the Account Service, but within a few years I realised that I should move to the Planning Commission. Development is one subject about which I have been learning all my life.
JWT: What are your major achievements?
SA: In 1959 Ayub Khan set up 30 different committees and commissions. One of them was Administrative Reorganisation Commission. I became secretary of that committee. It made some very far reaching recommendations regarding the reconstruction of the government. After it ended, I received Tamgha-i-Imtiaz from Ayub Khan at the age of 29 years. After that I became a part of the Planning Commission. The way we influenced policy making was cited by World Bank as a model. As a result I got my Giant Secretaryship after 15 years in 1967. I was awarded Sitara-i-Khidmat as a result of my work there.
JWT: How is Beaconhouse National University (BNU) doing academically?
SA: Beaconhouse National University is a new university. It started seven years ago. Beaconhouse School System is of course 35 years old, but 10 years earlier they decided to move in to higher education. They also decided to make it a non-profit trust; it is not a profitable organisation. They allocated about 500 million rupees that they had earned from the school system for this university. When I joined BNU in 2004, the first task was to get a Charter, which we managed to achieve in one-and-a-half years. By 2007, we were classified by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) as a category W institution, which is the highest category with regard to university rankings.
The basic composition of BNU, which the founding members decided was that they believed that there were many business and information technology schools but no liberal arts school. The reason was that a person who qualifies from a business or IT school can become the head of companies but national, political and social leadership came from liberal arts background. They knew, however, that a liberal arts school could also be market-oriented. The first major school that was set up was the school of Visual Arts. This offers Bachelorette in fine arts, textile design, graphic design, etc. Apart from that BNU has a School of Architecture, School of Media and Mass Communication, School of Liberal Arts, School of Psychology, School of Education and the Economic Department has a research unit called Institute of Public Policy which publishes an annual independent review of the economy. We have expert faculty with an addition of foreign teachers. We have now about 1400 students and our new campus is under construction which would be a state-of-the-art campus.
JWT: BNU offers a variety of programmes, which programmme has the highest turnout of students?
SA: It used to be the School of Visual Arts but now it is the School of Media and Mass Communication which has the largest turnout of students. About 230 out of 1400 students study in this department.
JWT: How would you rate the private universities in comparison to the public universities when it comes to imparting quality education?
Obviously, there is no question that the quality of education in top private universities is much better than that of the public universities because of freedom to hire and fire and to design the syllabi. Most private universities have shifted to the semester system which is very important for the future. There are some public sector universities like Government College University, Kinnaird College for Women University, Lahore College for Women University as well as medical colleges that are quite good and comparable. However, the private sector universities like Agha Khan Medical University, Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Beaconhouse National University and a few others are comparable to the rest of the world. There are some private sector universities which are not up to the mark. The reason is the cost. Public sector universities can provide good and quality education because they get their budget from the government. Most private universities have somebody’s commitment behind them and this is very critical in education.
JWT: What would you say about the high fee structure of private universities? How can the students be facilitated in this regard?
As far as BNU is concerned, those students who get admission in our university and cannot afford it are given need based scholarships.
We give scholarships to almost one-third of our students. The students get scholarships from 15 to 75 per cent. Apart from this, we also give merit scholarships. Those who maintain a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 3.5 and above, we give them 25 per cent scholarships.
Talking about high fee structure, I would say that in spite of charging high fee from students, we are running in deficit. It is not possible to make money from fees. As I said before, we provide scholarship to about 30 per cent of the students, the rest of the 70 per cent can afford the fees. So instead of going abroad and paying double and triple the amount of money on education, we are providing them with quality education in Pakistan.
JWT: Are you in favour of privitisation of universities?
I would not talk of privitisation in the sense that the public sector universities should be privitised. What I am in favour of is that the public sector universities should improve their quality of education and should have a merit system. The Higher Education Commission in 2005 had anticipated that the enrollment in public sector universities will grow three times and that in private sector universities five times. So, the responsibility of government to provide quality education remains unfulfilled. To supplement that, since the government cannot fully meet it, if private sponsorship wants to invest in education and set up facilities, then at least some education is better than no education.
JWT: What do you think can be done to reduce the gap of knowledge and exposure between the students of private and public universities?
I think this is a general phenomenon and not just between private and public universities. Overall, when we talk of education we do not refer only to literacy. One is the Human Development Index that measures literacy. Then there is Access to Technology Index which measures a society’s telephones, patents, research expenditures, etc. Apart from these there is knowledge-based index which refers to the number of telephones, the internet users, the cell phones and the entire infrastructure. So, if you have to compete with the world, you have to exceed in all these 4 areas. The problem is that we are not spending enough on education. The UNESCO target is 4 per cent, we are spending less than two per cent. We need to improve the quality of education and that can be done partly by recruiting competitive teachers. The only advantage private universities have is that they can recruit teachers on merit. The public universities are under political pressure sometimes, but they must withstand that pressure and recruit teachers on merit. Apart from this, there is this huge divide between students of English and Urdu medium schools, which has further deepened by the madrassas. We need to have a uniform education system.
JWT: What are your views regarding the devolution of Higher Education Commission (HEC)?
I think devolution of education is necessary but not of HEC. We have devolved now the management of education system to the provinces under the Eighteenth Amendment but HEC still has some important functions. Firstly, under the amended constitution, the standard of education is now the responsibility of the federal government, so they must see that it maintains it. Secondly, international education also remains important. Thirdly, some coordination on curriculum is necessary so that the minimum requirement of Pakistan Studies, Islamic Studies and other subjects remains. HEC also has promotional functions. It is providing access to thousands of journals, books and magazines online. It provides access to video conferencing facilities and bandwidth so that the universities can do distance education. If you spilt these functions it would require specialised training. Also, if you want your degrees to be recognised world over, you would need a body that has standing and accepted like HEC. Provincial authority would take a lot of time to acquire the same status. So, it should not be devolved. However, the provincial capacity needs to be upgraded. I feel that each province should create a provincial commission for higher education. Similarly, at the district level, a district education authority manned by professionals is required.
JWT: Do you think that the local PhD holders have a bright future in Pakistan because most of the universities give preference to foreign PhD holders?
There are two different aspects. One is that you cannot educate everybody abroad so there is no question that you can only depend on foreign qualified PhD holders. I am a strong advocate of local PhDs and I believe that we should develop our own capacity to give PhDs because in this way we retain them. On the contrary, if we send students to foreign countries for PhDs, half of them never come back. However, there are certain subjects for which you have no facilities here. So for such subjects we need to send students abroad for doctorates. Obviously, the graduates of foreign universities have an edge over the local ones but there should not be any hard and fast rule regarding hiring PhD holders and preference should be given to local PhDs.
JWT: Why is the education budget of Pakistan so low as compared to other South Asian countries?
SA: The reason is historical. The problem started from 70s and 80s onwards. One was that our defense budget due to our troubles with India has been twice as much as the GDP of India. India was spending 2.5’3 per cent while we were spending about 5′ 6 per cent of our GDP on defense. That squeezed the resources for education. Then, after 90s the military aid halted and we started borrowing money to cover the cost. As a result, debt servicing became very high and that constricted our resources. Also, the education is a provincial subject, most expenditure takes place at the provincial level and under the NFC Award they have not been getting enough. I have been suggesting that under the NFC Award, a certain percentage should be given to the provinces only for education.
Another important problem is that in the 70s and 80s our population growth rate was three per cent, in India it was two per cent and in China it was one per cent. The number of people who need to be educated is growing much faster. So even if we increase our budget, population explosion would remain a hurdle in imparting education to the people of Pakistan.
JWT: What reforms would you suggest for the progress of the education sector of Pakistan?
First of all you must allocate more money for education. Secondly, recruitment of teachers should be on merit. Thirdly, we must improve our educational administration by creating provincial education commission and district education authorities.
JWT: Why have the planning policies time and again failed in Pakistan?
SA: I do not believe that our planning has failed. It is our implementation policies that have failed. China has one policy that whenever they introduce a reform they first improve the administrative and institutional mechanism for implementing that reform and then introduce it. We in Pakistan issue a circular and think that the reform would occur. The administrative and institutional infrastructure in our country does not have the capacity to implement the policies. The gap between policies, strategies and implementation is very big.