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Higher education — trends and challenges

Having finished my class lecture, I was sitting in my friend’s room, waiting for him. One of my students knocked at the door and I let him in. He looked confused and wanted to talk to me about an important decision to be made. The decision was about whether he should continue taking my course or drop it (it was almost mid of semester). “Sir I’m confused. I don’t want to drop this course but I’m under pressure,” said the student. I asked what the confusion was. The answer was not surprising to me.

The topper of his class, he was enjoying the course as he told me. But the pressure was the fear of losing his top position as two of his competitors — on the 2nd and 3rd positions — had already left the course in anticipation that the teacher will be marking the answers strictly. And that can lower their grades and, consequently, their positions in class.

He feared that the student on the 2nd position may go on the top position if the other teacher gives good grades to the 2nd and 3rd position holders or if I give bad grades to him. The reason for talking to me was to get an assurance that his position will not change or he must drop the course.

In other words, the teacher will be grading the examinations so that he gets good grades and can retain his position. The fault may not be with the student sitting next to me; rather it may be the system he has to compete in.

This is a routine business in our educational institutes, particularly in universities. Exceptions apply, but unluckily we are into an unholy trade. The commodity into the business is demand for and supply of easy-coming grades/marks.

The business has its demand and supply sides. On the demand side, first and foremost, is the job market. The job market in Pakistan gauges the capacity in “grade” on the transcript. In this race for choosing ‘the best candidate,’ about 70 per cent jobs require a minimum of 3.00/4.00 CGPA, which equals 70 per cent marks.

This pushes students to run for grades so that they can at least qualify to apply for their favourite job. Firstly, students pick easy courses available optionally. Secondly, taking of a compulsory course is waited till the “easy teacher” is available.

The inability to make a good learning environment has rendered degree holders with empty minds but with transcripts overloaded with higher grades/scores. The portfolio of these students carries everything but understanding of the subject.

Optional courses are meant to make-up deficiencies of any student and provide options to students to go for specialisation in their areas of interest. Using these courses as a tool to accumulate CGPA compromises this benefit for students as the choice of “optional courses” is not guided by “requirements” rather the criteria is “easiest of the courses” available.

Also, the students end up learning nothing as the focus throughout the semester remains on achieving high scores and not learning. Same holds true for compulsory courses where learning remains secondary option.

There is also a supply side of grades/CGPAs. Commercialisation of education, higher tuition fees and increasing returns from this business, have pushed teaching institutes/universities into a very strong competition where students are clients and everyone in the market offers ‘incentives’ to attract the client. The best of incentives comes as “no failure” in general and “best grades” in particular.

To show ‘performance,’ universities do not afford failing students. This aspect is partially strengthened by high semester fee. Show of performance to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) may further add to the supply.

Teachers in our teaching system are themselves under pressure as number of students passing with higher grades is considered to be criteria of good teaching in general. A teacher aiming at “learning” of students is forced to opt out of the competition.

Insecure job contracts, like tenure track system or visiting faculty adds to giving high grades. This has also a serious bearing upon quality of learning. Teachers focusing on quality of education and learning of students are not needed. If the best are able to stay, they compromise on teaching.

This inability to make a good learning environment has rendered degree holders with empty minds but with transcripts overloaded with higher grades/scores. The portfolio of these students carries everything but understanding of the subject.

The ‘performance’ of our higher education system is evident from the recently launched Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2015-16, where Pakistan is ranked at the bottom with 9.2/100 and 124th out of 140, respectively, in terms of quality of higher education.

The ‘business’ in education is causing inefficient allocation of human capital. The system is not letting teachers and students focus on teaching and learning the art of producing ideas. A knowledge-based economy needs thinking minds producing knowledge and ideas which tackle and provide solutions to the existing problems of economy.

Universities have a greater role to play. It is not about the number of graduates or post graduates a university produces; it is not about how many of them got A+ grade or scored more than 80 per cent marks. It is not about quantity. It is about quality; quality of the teaching environment and the quality of learning environment. Evaluation criteria of teachers need to be developed accordingly.

Also, let the students be judged on the ideas they produce, the mastery on the art of learning and not on the grades or scores. It is not that there should not be a scoring criteria, but the argument is to produce an environment where these scores are reflective of the quality of learning of a student. Qualification criteria for a job must not be wholly conditional on a certain level of CGPA.

The worth of a university is the ideas its students and teaching faculty generate and that their job is not distributing degrees only. If we want to make Pakistan a knowledge-based economy as the Vision 2025 stresses, the role of universities needs to be reframed.

We need a system of education where the focus is on the potential of students to generate ideas. Otherwise, we will end up producing machines living their lives on others’ views in the face of issues.

Source: The News on Sunday

Byline: Sajid Amin

December 4, 2016

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