July Issue 2015
Universities or Diploma Mills?
Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. But you can’t fool all the people all the time.” The behemoth named Axact – built allegedly on selling lies and fake degrees to the highest bidders – was brought down recently by solid investigative journalism by The New York Times. However, the phenomenon of internet-based universities and ‘diploma mills’ is not a recent discovery. A ‘diploma mill’ is an unaccredited higher education institution that offers illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas for a particular fee. Diploma mills are usually associated with ‘accreditation mills,’ providing ‘authenticity’ to the diplomas issued by the diploma mills. In many countries, it is a criminal offence to call an institution a university without state authorisation. Allegedly, Axact was ticking all these boxes – and more.
In the weeks following the Axact scandal, quite a lot of naming and shaming was being done in the print and electronic media. The standard of education, the meagre budgetary allocation for it, curriculum reforms and drop-out rates were discussed at length during this inquisition. Most commentators, however, failed to derive a fundamental conclusion from this saga. Most public-sector and private universities in Pakistan are not too dissimilar to the Axact ‘universities,’ in terms of transfer of skills or training for the real world. In an ideal world, a university is supposed to be a place where students obtain basic skills related to their field and learn how to solve problems arising in real-life scenarios. Additionally, universities are supposed to inculcate critical thinking and a holistic approach towards life. To quote eminent historian, Romila Thapar, “Education has many functions. It provides information, as the internet does, but the difference is that it is meant to provide reliable information, and teach students to think logically and analytically. If knowledge has to advance, existing knowledge should be challenged. Such critical enquiry is the critical point of education in any field, whether the sciences, social sciences or the humanities. Incidentally, it is also the best job training a student can receive.”
Which public-sector universities in Pakistan are teaching any of this to their students, not to mention the private institutes operating in every nook and corner of the country? Beyond a very limited understanding of the English language and some technical terms, what life lessons are being imparted by these centres of learning? In fact, students and teachers from private universities in Punjab remark that when it comes to the quality of education and the quanta of learning, the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ degrees is minimal. They lament the lack of industry-university coordination in most fields and the unpreparedness of students for the job market after acquiring expensive degrees.
The output of a university is measured in terms of the research being carried out at the campuses (by the faculty and the students) and the employment prospects of its students after graduation. On both these counts, none of the major public universities or private institutes in Pakistan manage to compete at an international level. Graduates from our universities do not get jobs in the international market easily, because of the flawed education model being followed at the majority of the country’s educational institutions.
Quality education is available only to a particular segment of the social strata and the state of state-subsidised education is abysmal. Unfortunately, the provision of quality education to all citizens has never been on the agenda of Pakistan’s ruling elite. Despite article 25-A of the constitution of Pakistan, not all citizens enjoy the ‘right to education.’ In the last few decades, some concrete steps were devised for the improvement of higher education. The formation of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was one such step. In the 2002 General Elections, candidates were required to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree to be able to contest. Many hopefuls did not meet that criteria. No matter! The former head of the HEC, Dr Ata ur Rehman, wrote an article highlighting the fact that of 13,000 candidates who stood for the elections in 2007, at least 2,000 had fake degrees. Many such candidates faced the wrath of the Election Commission and the judiciary, and lost their seats in the national legislature. However, this did not deter many public figures (including, but not limited to, Amir Liaquat Husain, Dr Babar Awan and Dr Danish) from treading the same path.
The only difference between Axact’s diploma mills and our institutes is that of physical presence. One can buy a degree from certain Pakistani universities after attending a certain number of classes and showing up for semester exams, while at ‘Barkeley’ or ‘Columbiana’ all you needed to do was to pay upfront. The end result is the same in both cases: Degrees that are not worth the paper they are printed on. Something is clearly rotten in the state of Pakistan’s education system.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. He writes on History, Political Economy and Literature. Follow him on Twitter