The most important victim of the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan is the education sector, including higher education, and there are fears that many university students may lose at least one of their precious academic semesters. If it happens, it would be a great loss to the educational sector and, in fact, entire society.
It is important to note that universities of Pakistan were not at all prepared to cope up with the situation unfolded by the spread of Covid-19. Although no institution or sector of the country was prepared at all for the pandemic, yet at least universities and colleges, being seats of higher learning, were expected that they would have at least some contingency plans to face the situation. The expectation was stronger among people because in the age of information and communication technologies, physical settings for education and instruction may not be inescapable. In other words, at least a large number of lessons could be delivered through information and communication technologies. Without any doubt, that could be done provided there was infrastructure and gadgets available at the universities.
Insofar, one knows almost all universities in Pakistan have Information Technology (IT) departments at varying levels of sophistication. Even most faculties have computer labs. Therefore, there was an expectation that even if the universities had been physically closed down, teachers could teach students from their respective campuses online. However, it has not happened extensively. Most universities and other educational institutions were closed down as part of a countrywide shutdown to contain Covid-19. However, most universities, particularly in the public sector, could not come up with a strategy for online education by even June. Only some private sector universities have come up with a strategy to start online courses and some have been successfully doing so. But engineering and medical universities and institutions mostly could not do so along with some other natural sciences disciplines as most of them require extensive practical and laboratory work, which could not be carried out online. Nevertheless, in developed countries even engineering and medical subjects, including laboratory and practical work, could be conducted through information and communication technologies. However, in Pakistan there is no elaborate network at the engineering, medical and other professional disciplines to carry out practical and laboratory work virtually. The situation created by the corona virus pandemic has taught the world a lesson that they must take advantage of information and communication technologies to limit their physical movement and resort to virtual work, whether official or academic.
The unpreparedness of Pakistani universities in the situation created by Covid-19 is related to the even wider and profound issues which most of them do not want to address. The foremost of the problems faced by the universities is the availability of financial resources to develop infrastructure that could support state-of-the-art technologies. The government funding for the universities in Pakistan has already reduced over the last few years due to a slow growth of the country’s economy and the resultant unavailability of finances to be allocated to different sectors. There is a lot of substance in the argument that without financial resources the universities could do nothing for their and society’s development. However, this is also an excuse for the generally sluggish university administrators and faculty members, because even universities, which have received substantial government funding in different heads to improve the quality of academics and research, could not do so. This has primarily been due to lack of commitment on part of their academic and administrative staff. Therefore, the availability or lack of financial resources could be a factor in the development of universities but not an underlying cause of their poor performance. It is important to note that most of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) funds are provided to public sector universities while the role of the body in private sector universities is fundamentally and largely regulatory in nature. Under the regulatory authority, the HEC has been asking private sector universities and institutes to maintain high standards of infrastructure, learning, faculty and curricula, which most of them ill-afford.
Most government sector universities have failed to perform due to interference from successive governments and military regimes to conduct scientific and independent objective research. Ministers, bureaucrats and members of parliament have been trying to recruit their near and dear ones and their followers to the universities and a large number of their employees have been appointed through political influence instead of a system of merit. On the other hand, unionism among university teachers and administrative staff of government sector universities and institutions of higher learning has also inflicted irreparable damage on the academic and research output of the seats of higher learning. Most unions of teachers and administrative support staff aim at securing financial and non-financial benefits. However, the most sordid aspect of the unions is that they have rarely raised voice for the poor academic performance of teachers. Moreover, the unions of teachers, which want to recruit near and dear ones of teachers, bring them face-to-face with governmental authorities, which also want to secure jobs for their kith and kin at the universities, or in rare cases with conscientious officials.
Universities around the world, particularly in the developed countries, exist on the philosophy to contribute practically to societies by addressing their issues and challenges, like pandemics, terrorism or extremism. On the contrary, Pakistani universities’ contribution to society is negligible. Therefore, they cannot demand more financial resources and support from the government, because whatever resources they have already received they have failed to justify them by their performance. In the situation, the country’s policymakers will have to come up with an elaborate time-bound policy to improve the performance of the institutions of higher learning. Otherwise, continuing with the existing policies of establishing more and more universities on a political basis, providing the HEC the regulatory task without any other body assessing its own performance and capacity and leaving the universities to themselves in the name of autonomy would result in more poor performance.