Education: the Challenge of Quality
The problem of access had always been a serious challenge for the educational system of Pakistan, where even historically at the primary level millions of students could not make it to school.
At the higher education level, the situation was even tougher. In 1947, we had only two universities but now we can boast of having almost 200 degree-awarding universities/institutes. With this quantitative expansion, there arose some serious questions of quality.
In the recent past, with very generous funding from the Higher Education Commission for PhD programmes, certain educational institutions found it an opportune time to enrol students into their ill-prepared and hastily offered programmes. These programmes had sufficient resources in terms of qualified regular faculty, a good contemporary library, and facilities for scholars like space and access to the internet.
The result is that a large number of PhD scholars, after finishing their coursework are not given proper guidance and are left in the wilderness. The desire to see the production of hundreds of PhDs is appreciable but the ground realities are just the opposite. There are two obvious outcomes: first, a large number of scholars, because of lack of guidance, face serious problems in the research phase. Second, in some cases substandard PhDs are granted without observing rigorous processes.
Besides PhDs, a similar process is being adopted for Masters programmes. In arts subjects, MA English has a relatively large job market. This has prompted a number of educational institutions to offer MA in English Literature or MA in English Language Teaching (ELT). With the exception of some established institutions, we see the floodgates opened by most educational institutions. Again, this is done without qualified faculty and in the absence of a rigorous entrance test and challenging academic process.
As a result of this free-for-all policy, a large number of students are thrown into the market with their MA English Literature or MA ELT degrees. The majority of them get these degrees in the absence of a rigorous academic system, and are generally not familiar with the basics of the subject.
I was recently asked to be a part of a panel of interviewers to interview some potential lectures with qualifications of MA English and MA ELT. Trained as a teacher educator, I was particularly interested in assessing the content knowledge of the candidates in the relevant disciplines. I have a firm belief that a teacher occupies a central position in the dynamics of curriculum as it is the teacher who interacts with students, and constructs curriculum with his/her actions.
For a successful teacher it is important to be well-versed with the three layers of professional development – content, skills, and attitude. Some of the recent research studies on teacher education have suggested that a subject’s content knowledge plays a crucial part in the success of a teacher. These findings are significant in the context that most of our teacher education programmes are laying extra emphasis on methods, techniques and strategies, assuming that candidates posses the subject knowledge.
My experience of interviewing potential English Language/Literature lecturers confirmed the findings of these research studies. It also shocked me as an educationist to see the existing quality of education at the MA level and the kind of graduates certain educational institutions are sending to the market.
Let me share with you some of the answers of the candidates, which will help further clarify my point. Almost all the candidates frankly admitted that they didn’t read books; this was also evident from their answers. Most of the candidates could not recount the names of five novels they had ever read in their lives. Most of the candidates didn’t know the title of any novel other than those prescribed in their syllabus.
Most of the candidates seemed to have passed their examinations by just memorising notes from guide/help books, without even reading the actual novels. According to one candidate, the female protagonist of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was Charlotte Bronte. When asked, “Who was ‘Darcy’ in ‘Pride and Prejudice’?” the candidate replied, “Darcy was the heroine of the novel”.
A candidate with an MA ELT degree, including the sociolinguistics course, had no idea about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A candidate whose thesis was in the area of assessment had no clue about ‘higher order thinking skills’. Another candidate who evaluated a textbook with reference to Bloom’s taxonomy could not tell the difference between the terms ‘syllabus’ and ‘curriculum’.
Another candidate, with an MA ELT degree had never heard the name of the sociolinguist, Hymes, who is known for his work on communicative competence. A couple of candidates came with similar titles of their theses. They shared with the interview panel that their whole group worked on the same topic and the only difference was evaluation of a book of different grade. This would simply mean that literature review, research methodology, references, and, to some extent, discussion parts were common in all the theses.
The experience of interviewing candidates for the position of lectureship gave me some useful insights into the prevailing academic practices in some educational institutions and their product – the graduates:
I could imagine that there are no stringent entry tests organised for admissions to these programmes. That there are insufficient teaching and library resources. That there is a lack of a rigorous academic system and it is relatively easy to get degrees. And that there is insufficient research exposure and thesis-writing is just a formality.
Who is responsible for this substandard education? Some will consider the HEC responsible for not monitoring quality. I, however, believe that lack of internal academic rigour of educational institutions is to be blamed. Why should educational institutions, with insufficient resources, admit students and then throw them to the market with half-baked degrees? Churning out graduates without quality is not a service to this nation.
The writer is an educationist.