PAKISTAN: Universities must tackle national problems

Pakistan has been hit by massive floods many times and once by a severe earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people. These, and numerous other problems the country faces, have raised questions about the role of universities. Concern is growing that most courses taught at universities are irrelevant to Pakistan's social and economic needs.

The 2010 floods in Pakistan killed 2,000 people and displaced 20 million. Some 160,000 square kilometres were inundated, 1.8 million hectares of crops were destroyed and 200,000 animals died.

Universities arranged seminars on floods and climate change but nothing went beyond discussions and the country was again hit by massive flooding this year, killing 450 people and rendering 5.3 million homeless while destroying 688,000 hectares of crops.

Out of 132 recognised universities in Pakistan, only two offer degree courses directly related to natural calamities. On 12 November the University of Peshawar started a bachelor degree in disaster preparedness and management while the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar offers an earthquake engineering degree.

"Pakistan's universities have the capacity but not the required resources to address national issues of grave importance where their role is relevant," Abdul Nabi, vice-chancellor of the University of Balochistan, told University World News.

"Lack of university-industry and university-government coordination has minimised the role of universities into producing only job-seekers."

Pakistan's present territory has been hit by natural disasters since before the country came into being in 1947. It faced major floods in 1928, 1929, 1955, 1973, 1976, 1980 and 1992 as well as in 2010 and this year. Severe earthquakes have also jolted the country many times. An October 2005 earthquake killed 80,000 people and rendered 3.5 million homeless.

But the idea of universities developing the human resources and skills to tackle such disasters never occurred to policy-makers in Pakistan or, apparently, to most universities.

Amir Nawaz Khan, director of Peshawar University's Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Management, told University World News: "We started efforts to introduce disaster management courses at the university in 2008 and offered diplomas with support from Germany's Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit until the university agreed to support the centre from its budget. Now we have started degree programmes."

He said his centre was not set up on directions from policy-makers but was a university initiative. "That should have been done much earlier by the government," said Khan, who has a PhD in disaster management from the UK's Nottingham University.

"Different universities are teaching about earthquakes in their geology courses and about floods in their irrigation engineering degrees, but they do not know the potential they have and lack an integrated approach towards disaster management."

Syed Muhammad Ali, director of the Earthquake Engineering Centre at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, told University World News: "There is need to engage Pakistan universities in policy-making at the national level.

"There are many gaps in links between universities, society and government which need to be filled for utilisation of our local expertise." Ali said his centre was one of the best earthquake education facilities "but there is no formal linkage between the centre and other relevant state institutions".

While acknowledging gaps in university-government links Abdul Sattar Shakir, a professor of hydraulics and water resources engineering at Lahore's University of Engineering and Technology, said flood and earthquake management had many stakeholders.

Universities had little say in policy-making and thus could not be blamed for poor planning by other state institutions.

"Weaknesses are there in our university system, especially in outside links, but disaster management is not something for which only universities are responsible. The role of universities in tackling natural disasters has to be seen in overall national context," said Shakir, who has a PhD from Britain's University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

While his university was not offering degrees with names such as flood management, within civil engineering it had courses in water resources engineering. "We have the capacity to start degree courses in river engineering and flood management," he added.

Anwar Nasim, a visiting professor of biotechnology at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, said the growing perception was that universities were irrelevant to Pakistan's social and economic needs.

"But it is very difficult to fix the responsibility for this state of affairs. Universities are part of the society experiencing the worst due to poor governance of the country," he told University World News.

"I regularly receive emails from graduating students complaining that we taught them a subject for which there are hardly any jobs. But should we stop teaching that subject and, if so, what should we teach for which there are job prospects? The total picture is dismal."

But many people have started questioning the usefulness to urgent national needs of university courses in, for instance, pure sciences, management sciences and languages. A data bank of PhD dissertations shows that chemistry, Urdu literature, Islamic studies, Arabic and botany are the top research areas.

"Apart from terrorism, we are faced with poverty, hunger, floods, earthquakes, energy shortage and epidemics and our universities are offering subjects which have no relevance to our urgent national and social needs," said Kashif Majeed, a research fellow at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

"We need to link our universities with society."

Pirzada Qasim Raza Siddiqui, vice-chancellor of the University of Karachi, admitted that the country's universities are aloof from the society. But he holds government responsible.

"Universities in any country seek direction from the government in terms of what kind of graduates and skilled manpower the country needs. Government institutions should inform universities of their requirements so that universities can offer courses directly relevant to society's needs," Siddiqui told University World News.

Academics have suggested enhancing the role of the Higher Education Commission as a central coordinating agency between government, industry, society and universities. They believe that shaking the commission's foundations, as has happened in the past year, could broaden the gap between universities and society.

They hope that 2012 will bring good news for universities in Pakistan, unlike 2011, which proved to be one of the most difficult years for higher education.

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