What’s Wrong – Pakistan’s Higher Education System

Issues in Pakistan’s Education System: A Focus on Higher Education

Scientia Potentia Est, or “For also knowledge itself is power”, is a very popular Latin maxim that all of us will have heard or read quite a few times throughout our school days. In the fast-paced, rapidly growing information age, it could not be any truer.

The concept of knowledge economy hovers around the utilization of knowledge and information as a productive asset. All the sectors, be it services related or manufacturing related all rely on knowledge and information for productivity; be it a groundbreaking piece of code for a software, or the schematics of a new prototype car.

Knowledge is gained through two methods; one is experience, the other is formal education and training. Experience can only come with time; however, we still need to understand our experiences. That is where education comes in.

Education is a building block of life as we know it, without which, we would not have the world we see now. It is widely understood that a country with a good education infrastructure has everything it needs to become a successful, highly developed nation. Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll try to see where Pakistan’s education system stands, what challenges it faces, and what possible solutions we might have.

The Current System:

Pakistan’s education system is split up into five levels. The first level starting from grade one and going up to grade five, is Primary Schooling. This education varies from school to school with some private schools offering exceptional schooling but at a very high price, and public schools often being termed mediocre; we’ll talk about the issues later on through this article.

The second level, Middle Schooling, starts at grade six and continues up to the eighth grade. Again, the curriculum and schooling criteria varies from school to school, but the same conception applies here as well. Public schools are generally considered lackluster as compared to some private schools and the elitist schools offer the best schooling, at exorbitant fee structures.

The third level consists of grades nine and ten, and is called Highschooling. This level is followed by Matriculation or Secondary School Certification (SSC) Exams. These exams are conducted on a provincial or district level. Once again, the quality of schooling varies from school to school with some schools following the Cambridge system of education.

The fourth level consists of the eleventh and twelfth grades, and is called Intermediate Level Schooling. These two years of schooling are offered at several schools and also at several colleges, and are followed by Higher Secondary School Certification (HSSC) or Intermediate Exams. Like the SSC Exams, these are also conducted at the provincial level, as well as the federal level.

Though these two years are the foundation for students as they determine a direction that they take for their career, students often change their career paths after their intermediate education and certification. There seems to be a growing need for student career-path counseling.

The fifth level is composed of Undergraduate and Post-Graduate degree programs. The Undergraduate or Bachelors degree programs range from a Bachelors’ in Arts to Bachelors’ in Law, covering several different programs. The duration of these programs varies according to the nature of the specialization or course, from two to four years. There are several private and public universities spread out across the country that offer such bachelors degree programs.

The Undergraduate or Bachelors’ programs are of two types; Pass and Honors. The Pass system comprises of twelve subjects, ranging from compulsory Language, History, and Religion based courses, to optional courses that cover specific areas with a duration of two years. The Honors system constitutes specialization courses in addition to select compulsory courses over three to four years.

The Post-Graduate degree programs consist of Masters and PhDs in various subjects, ranging from philosophy and education to business administration and engineering subjects. The Masters programs are of around 2 years, and consist of specialization courses in a chosen subject. The PhD programs are a further extension of specialization and are of around three to five years.

With several public and private universities and degree awarding institutes offering these programs, the quality of education varies profoundly, with select institutes given preference over others. The reason for such a vast difference in the quality of education is primarily the curriculum used, and the faculty of that institute. Once again, we’ll talk about the issues in more detail a little later on through the story.

The Issues:

Though Pakistan has a very high number of private and public sector schools, the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired. Some private sector schools do offer excellent quality, but have such a high fee that the lower middle income group can hardly afford them. Additionally, most public sector schools lack enough competent teachers to cater to the high demands of this age group.

The most critical aspect of the earlier stages of formal education is the development of an inquisitive and active mind. If a child is encouraged to think out of the box from such an early age, not only would his learning experience be a lot more productive, he would grow into a prodigious professional.

Additionally, another common complaint of parents of public-sector school students is poor English vocational skill. This once again, falls under the umbrella of ineffective and unskilled teachers.

A very critical issue our intermediate level students face is a feeling of general mayhem and incertitude of their direction in life. Though some students have a fairly good idea of where they want to go, most do not, and this is why they end up changing their career paths during their higher education.

Analysts and critiques argue that the reason for this irresolution lies in the fact that our current education system does not seed curiosity nor does it encourage further research. The reason behind this, they point out, is an ill-planned examination system that is graded according to a student’s ability to memorize selective topics in their curriculum, and to rewrite them onto paper. Our education system is in dire need of rejuvenation, and though it has already started, there is still indeed a long way to go.

Also, another reason for this uncertainty is a lack of guidance and counseling. Due to our social setup, most students need constant feedback and guidance to steer themselves into the right career. This can only be done if all schools set up student counselors who would help students decide a particular field they wish to enter.

At the university level, a major challenge is the lack of skilled and competent teachers. According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, “There are far too few qualified Pakistanis who can teach modern engineering subjects at an international professional level. There may be no more than two to three dozen suitable engineering professors in all of Pakistan’s engineering universities.” He further points out that the current number of engineering professors is minuscule if you look at the number of professors needed by the several international engineering universities being set up throughout the country.

Another very major concern is the development of a suitable curriculum and examination system. Though the Higher Education Commission is currently developing a standardized curriculum for all public and private sector universities and institutes, the development of existing and new faculty will take quite some time.

Possible Solutions:

One possible solution to these problems is already under way. The restructuring of the entire system has already started and it is gradually being reworked into a more coherent and encouraging system for all. The system needs to be transformed so that it cultivates curiosity and research, instead of just going through a selection of notoriously irksome books.

Moreover, we need to train our teachers to be more receptive of their students, instead of just being receptive of the books of their curriculum. With formal training, teachers can improve their language skills, as well as their direction and teaching skills. In simple words, we need to train them to be more open-minded and curious, so they in turn pass on that trait to their students.

As for the lack of qualified Pakistani teachers and professors, one possible solution is to set up mandatory training courses for all teachers, as well as suitable experience and educational qualifications before allowing them to become teachers at higher education institutions. As for the immediate need, we need to hire foreign faculty for all our educational institutes while the currently employed teachers undergo mandatory training.

As said in the beginning of this story, education is a building block of life as we know it and it is the primary thing that makes us human. As a child grows, he learns, and what he learns, he must be given the freedom to practice, and to grow. Without this freedom, he will confine himself to a cocoon, yet he will not transcended beyond that stage, and he will not turn into a butterfly.

A child’s mind is like a blank canvas; use the right combination of colors, and it turns into a Van Gogh or a Michelangelo, use the wrong combination and it turns into muck. The development of a child determines his outlook and standing in life.

I came across a very famous dialogue from a blockbuster Hollywood movie, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is”, and it truly is!

Open Source Software in Higher Education

The higher education sector is quite unlike other industries. It has its own processes and a different set of demands. Most commercial proprietary application vendors develop their applications focused on a wider domain spread across industries. This, academics complain, creates a distinct disconnect between software vendors and the end-users in academia.

To overcome these shortcomings, the education industry started looking to “open source” as an alternate model. Around a decade back, institutions started debating total cost of ownership in adopting an open source based community approach vis-à-vis proprietary applications, viability of open source based business models, sustainability and security issues.

The success of community developed open source software is quite well established. Linux and Apache are ample proof of its success. A similar trend, though not that widespread in its reach, can be traced to the development of community projects in education like the Moodle and Sakai.

Through the course of its formative years, the open source community based approach in education has developed several alternative models. Some of these models and schools of thought have thrived and been implemented successfully across a significant spectrum of the industry. Progress and success in open source projects like the Sakai, Moodle, Kuali, uPortal, Shibboleth, and many more are being closely watched by the industry.

Community Source Model

One school of thought believes that open source sharing is more a philosophical approach than a viable alternative. The adoption of open source in higher education seems to suggest otherwise. FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) communities are thriving well in learning environments too.

The FLOSS model has been extensively used in initiatives like the MIT OpenCourseWare and Open Source Biology. Project Gutenberg, the Wikipedia, The Open Dictionary project are prime examples of how open source has been successfully adapted to education initiatives.

In a community source project, multiple institutions come together to partner in the project. All partners contribute financially as well as in employing human resources for the effort. In the early stages, the partnering institutions provide all design and development efforts and only in subsequent stages is the project opened to the broader community. This way, the initial support is secured and the institutions have a substantial influence in deciding how the application is modeled and designed.

The initial focus of community source projects is on collaboration between institutions. The focus in the crucial first stages is therefore to form a common economic outlook and an appropriate administrative framework rather than forming a community around a shared code. Most community based open source projects slowly migrate to open source in the later stages.

The Sakai project, for example, started as a joint effort between four institutions (Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Stanford). The initial agenda was to set up a framework of common goals that would produce appropriate software based on an agreed list of objectives. The scope for participation was later increased by forming the Sakai Educational Partners Program (SEPP), whereby other institutions can join and participate in the community for a small fee.

The Current Landscape

An education enterprise like any organization has its own needs ranging from resource planning to budgeting. Additionally, they have typical requirements like the need to integrate with financial aid programs of the government, multiple payroll cycles, and student information systems (SIS) that handle admissions, grades, transcripts, student records as well as billing. All these call for robust ERP systems. Until recently, colleges and universities mostly rely on either custom-developed systems that are more than 15 years old, or have transitioned to commercial products from vendors like Oracle, SAP, PeopleSoft or vendors like SunGard that are geared towards the higher education market.

Kuali Financials was borne due to the lack of open source solutions Enterprise applications in the higher education sector are comprised of a mix of some proprietary application vendors and some key open source community initiatives. PeopleSoft, Oracle, SunGard and Datatel are some key vendors that offer tightly integrated ERP packages for the education sector.

Recent consolidation in the industry, like the acquisition of PeopleSoft by Oracle and of WebCT, Angel, etc by Blackboard, has caused considerable unease in the education fraternity. The concern stems from the fear that the trend of consolidation would lead to the monopoly of a few key vendors. The plans of these vendors to offer tightly integrated systems heightens the fear that this will provide an unfair leverage to these vendors as it would extend the community’s dependence on them.

One area of concern about proprietary applications is a seeming disconnect between the industry and software application developers. Institutions also have strong reservations about the currently available administrative software and course management systems. The feeling is that applications provided by vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft are adapted from other industries and does not work well for educational enterprises. Moreover, the proprietary nature of the applications implies that the source code is not available and customization efforts involve substantial costs.

In the context of such a wide breadth of requirements, open source can prove to be a viable alternative. In fact, these constraints provided the impetus for open source initiatives in higher education. Some of the success has helped provide a strong foundation to building an alternative support model for the education industry.

In the Sakai project, the participating institutions decided to integrate and synchronize their educational software into a pre-integrated collection of open source tools termed Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE). Sakai has active implementations running at multiple institutes including the University of Michigan and Indiana University.

In parallel, Sakai also established a set of activity based communities that have spawned an active cooperation between the industry and application vendors. The Sakai Educational Partners Program allows educational institutions to participate in the program for a small fee. Besides, there are the Sakai Commercial Affiliates, who offer fee-based services for installation, integration and support..

Kuali, on the other hand, mainly addresses aspects of educational administration. The Kuali Financial System (KFS) is the most prominent application. It handles administrative and operational tasks like general accounting, purchasing, salary and benefits, budgeting, asset management and grants. The system is designed around modules that enable it to be tweaked to work with existing commercial applications. For example, at Indiana University, Kuali applications work together with PeopleSoft’s HR and student system. The Kuali Foundation is a non-profit consortium of multiple universities and some hardware and software companies. The Kuali Commercial Affiliate program operates on similar lines like its Sakai counterpart. The community has been growing and now includes the University of California, Cornell, Michigan State University, San Joaquin Delta College (Calif.), and The University of Arizona.

Significantly, according to the 2008 Campus Computing Survey, around 13.8 percent of the survey participants have already identified an Open Source LMS – either Moodle or Sakai – as the campus standard LMS.

Besides these, several other projects offer SIS functionality. For example, openSIS manages student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grades, transcripts, and health records, and its parent company makes add-on modules to support additional features like disciplinary tracking, billing, food service, and bulk email/SMS messaging for emergency contact.

Other Key intiaitives are

JaSig community developing uPortal, and CAS (Central Authentication Services) two components serving as input to Kuali Rice.

Internet2 – A consortium led by universities working in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies including products such as Shibboleth and Grouper

Open Source Curricula

As with any “open source” activity, open source curricula by its very definition is one that can be freely used, distributed and modified. A model like this would seemingly be antithetic to the concept of higher education as it strikes at the credibility of the education environment. Campus education is designed to operate as a structured learning methodology. The concept of community collaboration involving academics and students on the same platform brings a lot of unpredictability into the scenario

However, FLOSS communities (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) in education have proved to be quite successful. A key principle of this learning approach is its root in adapting it to the context of ones’ experience. With its stress on learners and their preferences, this learning approach focuses more on learning by collaboration, communication and sharing.

Significant initiatives include the Connexions Project at Rice University, the OpenCourseWare project at MIT and the social learning medium of Wikipedia.

The FLOSS approach in higher education has been operating in combination with traditional teacher centered approaches. The objectives of the FLOSS approach are not to replace traditional methods but to achieve synergies in combination and offer the learner an enhanced learning environment.

The ‘FLOSS-like education transfer report’ published in September 2008, as part of the FLOSSCOM project, notes that FLOSS communities can create effective learning environments. The study has also come up with three different approaches that could be combined effectively with traditional teaching approaches.

Economic Models of Open Source

One aspect that clearly marks the adoption of open source as a winner is the fact that in this scenario, the developers are most often also the users of the software. This removes the perceived disconnect between the developer community and the end-users unlike in the case of proprietary applications. However, this is less evident in the case of administrative applications like payroll or HR. In such cases, adoption of open source has to be a directed process.

Initiatives like the Kuali project have proved that open source can also build up sustainable models that provide adequate support mechanisms. In such models, there is active collaboration between the community that comprises not only developers and end-users, but also an extended support group comprising commercial vendors. These support groups are available to offer timely support to mission critical applications. The community approach also ensures that the code is not closed and that an active community of interest ensures that enhancements keep happening as necessitated.

Projects like uPortal have been developed with minimal resources but are deployed across hundreds of institutions. The community approach has proved sustainable as in the case of the Sakai project. In terms of funding, the Sakai project garnered an investment of $6.8 million over two years.

The viability of the open source, community based model stems not from the monetary or cost aspects but principally the adaptability that it offers. The debate over cost of ownership between commercially available proprietary software and open source applications is yet to be proved empirically. However, the fact that the code is open means it can be easily adapted to suit new requirements and does not involve significant investments in terms of customization or enhancements. This does make significant economic sense in the longer term.

The case for open source in higher education is nicely documented in a study by the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness. In a 2005 study report titled, ‘Will Open Source Software Become an Important Institutional Strategy in Higher Education?’ Rob Abel notes how open source is a “great fit for higher education”. The study, based on an analysis of open source projects in education, opines that the community-based approach is an interesting model that also helps reduce the inherent risks in adopting an open source approach.

As for the cost model, the study notes that while open source has helped generate cost savings in the range of 20 to 30 percent for the commercial sector, the same may not be entirely true in education. The community-based approach, the writer notes, with its associated participation fees, may prove only marginally beneficial in terms of costs. Institutions that have their own infrastructure and resources may however, benefit from substantially reduced costs from their open source initiatives.

The Future

Open source has proved to be adaptable and a reliable platform for collaboration and learning. In their quest for ideal application software to handle administrative, operational and education platforms, most CIOs are looking at interoperability, reliability and scalability of applications. Applications like the Sakai and Kuali have proved beyond doubt that open source applications offer great configurability.

Development communities and the support of commercial vendors, as in the case of Kuali and Sakai, fuel a greater rate of innovation. Moreover, the advantage that is offered by collaboration also provides an impetus to continued improvement of the system. Support systems and enhancements for future requirements are ensured.

On the question of how to approach or adopt open source as a model, the answer would depend on the needs, the infrastructure and the means available to an institution. The community development model has shown that costs can be broadly distributed amongst participants. Experience shows that universities and colleges can collaborate to produce open source software that caters to their needs in a way that is superior to some commercial products. The collaborative model enables educational institutions to pool their financial and technical resources. Moreover, a larger community ensures that the applications are tested in a variety of testing environments, thus aiding in building robust solutions.

In term of core academics, learning systems will evolve to accommodate formative assessments and evaluation outside the classroom. Many higher education institutions have taken the lead of MIT and are offering online course materials that are accessible by anyone, free of cost. It has been adopted at Yale, Notre Dame, Tufts and Stanford School of Engineering, to name a few. The United Nations has launched an initiative that would leverage social media technologies and ideas to offer higher education opportunities to people who would otherwise not be able to afford the costs.

Commercially, open source projects have taken their first steps in the marketplace. The model is evolving aided by some significant commercial vendor backing. For the community-based open source approach to prosper, substantial financial backing is an absolute necessity to prevent it from faltering and to avoid the pitfalls that arise form source code being easily modifiable and rebranded by a different vendor. From the commercial perspective, projects like Sakai and the Kuali Foundation are likely to thrive as they have substantial stakeholders from both the academic and the corporate world.

What could derail further adoption? There are several potential risk areas:

  • Lack of understanding of entry points for adoption
  • Lack of support to adopt the applications
  • Minimal staff to support the applications
  • Lack of training / documentation to train staff
  • A “runaway” project that consumes much press and develops a negative bias toward the project

Many of these risks may be mitigated though co-operative initiatives between the foundations developing the open source solutions and commercial affiliates looking to support the solutions – and develop complementation solutions. Some examples:

  • Further publicity through conventional, non-education related channels such as Google and industry-based sites such as edu1world
  • Furrther innovation and cooperation – whether through ‘summer of code’ collaborations; or community collaborations that will transform the current listservs to more accessible forums
  • Commercial affiliates offering training and webinars
  • Commercial affiliates offering ease of use entry points, such as pre-installed servers or virtual images that can be downloaded and used out of the box

In conclusion, open source initiatives in higher education have a long way to go before they enter the commercial mainstream in a significant fashion. However, with industry and academic collaboration, it has a great potential to change the higher education landscape in the longer term.

Government’s Hold on Higher Education – How Rational and/or Irrational?

The area of higher education is remarkably vast, having a variety of constituents, less or more contributive in nature. Also, like every other part of the social structure, good and bad lie in equilibrium there. Since corruption has radically made it to every sector of our society, there remain all the chances for a sensitive area like education to get affected, no exception.

College managements (private ones, especially) are too big bodies to get stormed away in the fury of corruption. In fact, they need to move with the flow and become a part of corruption in one way or the other. Every now and then, however, the delicate air of the area of higher education can be seen turning out to be insecure for students. Pity!

There is nothing complex in understanding that the weaker unit is always dominated in every social relationship, which students here in this case are. If anything adverse has to happen because of whatever irrational corruption carries along, that will happen to students. Not everyone thinks such thinking is thoughtful, though.

Where the idea of some legal body’s control over higher education institutes comes is the intellectual section of our society. Well educated intellectual people actually care for students, their future and career. They suggest that if there is a body required to govern institutes imparting higher education, it should be government itself. This they believe is the best way to make the control as pure and authentic as it ultimately can be.

Unlike that, those who deny this concept, strongly argue that government’s control on higher education can’t necessarily be transparent and corruption-free. This is exactly when a rich-in-contradiction narrative (always varying from person to person, obviously) of why there should or/and shouldn’t be some decree system to control higher education in India can be felt flowing around.

Is Government’s Control Actually Required?

In December 2010, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) issued its notification with a new set of rules for B-schools. It included instructions to finish MBA entrance exams such as XAT, ATMA and MICAT. It also stated that only MAT and CAT or exams conducted by any state government will be main means of admission in B-schools.

Furthermore, the circular implemented fee related regulations wherein B-schools were denied right to set fee according to their own structure. Also, because of the changes that were introduced, now higher education institutes need to admit students only through a state government controlled process. This is how government has managed to regulate higher education institutes. Though any policy implemented by government can’t be challenged, still common man willing to react on such rules and regulations (to prove them right or wrong in this way?) can’t be ignored. Everything governments do, after all, is for common man.

Mass Reaction – Consensus or Disagreement?

To a reasonable extent, having a regulatory body comprising of an excellent regulatory mechanism to tame higher education institutes is essential. Imparting education to young minds, future pillars of a country, after all, is a task full of responsibility. Then anybody opening up an institute in a residence-like accommodation doesn’t make sense. The worse, they charge enormous fees and provide students with almost negligible facilities and education in this way becomes more of a profit-making thing.

As suggests our original education policy, education can’t be for profit and should be for all, irrespective of which class or caste one belongs to. To make this actually happen, we need a regulatory mechanism in place. Also, this is only through government’s control that we can put a check on low grade and unrecognized educational organizations.

At the same time though, imposing too much regulations is like challenging liberalization. We need to keep in mind that it was economic liberalization which helped India emerge as the fastest growing economy in the world. We can’t, again, set excess of rules and regulations for higher education institutes as they promote innovation. Generally, we don’t see government schools and colleges coming up with new curricula that lead to innovation among students. And when private institutes of higher education want to design and implement new course structure, we deny it in order to defend the rules prevailing for long back. This can’t be called fair, no.

All in all, and for the most part, there is a common belief among us that governments should concentrate on tightening the reins of unrecognized institutes making back-door entries. And if our government, instead, interferes in how established and recognized centres of higher education function, it is completely unfair. Then why do it when nothing worthwhile is going to come out of it?