December Issue 2014

By | Education | Published 9 years ago

“The worth of every human is in their yohsin,” says a quote by Imam Ali, the first Shia Imam,  where yohsin translates to “thoughtful self-cultivation” and incorporates the notions of grace (husn), generosity (ehsaan) and excellence (ahsan). This concept of yohsin forms the philosophical premise on which Habib University’s mission is founded.

“Pakistan is among the worst countries in the world as far as higher education is concerned,” says Wasif Rizvi, President of Habib University. “We do poorly in all development indicators, and we are absolutely the worst in higher education, much worse than our primary and secondary education, which may be counterintuitive, but it’s logical when you think about it. If we start off so bad, it’s only going to get worse.”

Thus in 2010, the Habib University Foundation — a not-for-profit organisation of the House of Habib — announced its decision to launch the Habib University with a grant of US$ 40 million, which is the largest grant that has ever been given to an educational project in the history of Pakistan.

Construction on the state-of-the-art campus in Gulistan-e-Jauhar — including an impressive library, amphitheatre and auditorium, students’ commons, writing centre, fitness centre as well as several different labs — began in 2012 and was completed this year.

This summer, Habib University admitted its first batch of 112 undergraduate students and classes began in September. The curriculum offered at Habib University has been modelled along the lines of the liberal arts universities across the United States, which rank among some of the best in the world.

Dr Anjum Altaf, Habib University’s first Vice President and Provost, says the idea behind the institution was to provide a well-rounded education rather than just a means of giving students the necessary qualifications to acquire lucrative employment.

“Over the past 20 or 30 years in Pakistan, undergraduate education has taken the form of a certain skeletal structure,” he says. “Students go through primary and secondary education for 12 years, and then enrol in pre-medical or pre-engineering institutions and go straight into a profession.”

According to Dr Altaf, this model of education has led to training good professionals,  but when these same professionals attain positions which require high-level decision-making where, for example, you have to run an organisation, they find some abilities lacking. This, he says, is visible in our government circles, where decision-making has been extremely poor over the last three or four decades.

“To make an educated and aware citizen, you need to know how society functions,” Dr Altaf maintains. “To simplify it, the argument is: should you train first and educate later, or should you try and educate first and on that foundation then add the professional skills? When you put it like that, it’s an obvious no-brainer.”

The university currently offers four different degrees: BA in Communication Studies and Design, BSc in Social Development and Policy, BS in Electrical Engineering and BS in Computer Science, all which allow students to pick certain “thrusts” within the majors that students can focus on.

But central to those four disciplines is what they call the Liberal Core, a three-year curriculum which embodies the university motto of yohsin.


The Liberal Core has been developed in consultation with faculty from leading global and regional universities such as Carnegie Mellon University in  the United States and Texas A&M in Qatar, but retains an incisive focus on the humanistic knowledge and inheritance that are unique to Pakistan.

A set of six courses, the core begins in the first semester with a course called “Rhetoric and Communication,” which is designed to develop reading and presentation skills that students need to excel in at the university and thereafter.

This is followed by a course titled, “What is Modernity?” This course underpins the entire purpose of the Liberal Core.

“The question of modernity is and should be central to any liberal arts experience,” says Dr Nauman Naqvi, Acting Dean & Founding Faculty School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “It’s about developing a historical sensibility, because without a sense of the past, how can you have a sense of the present?”

The course involves a multidisciplinary engagement with various features and structures of the modern period, drawing on texts from across the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Following that is a course called, “Pakistan and Modern South Asia” which tackles the concept of modernity in a regional context. It calls for a rigorous analysis of modernity in all its local, regional, and global complexity.

Students in their sophomore year will then be required to take a year-long course titled, “History of Islamic thought — Hikma I & II,” a course that encompasses two semesters and bridges the students’ sophomore and junior years.

According to the course manual, it takes an “expansive historical and global view of the region’s rich heritage of Islamic thought in its intense and distinctive engagement with both Greek antiquity and the other Abrahamic traditions, as well as ambient regional traditions, such as Buddhism and the Bhakti.”

The Liberal Core ends with a course called, “Science, Technology & Society” which challenges advanced students with the central assertion that science and technology are inherently social activities. The course is meant to “demonstrate that the practice of scientific knowledge and technological development is a social and historical process in which both scientists and citizens play a key role.”

In essence the main aim of the Liberal Core curriculum is to give students a historic and contextual understanding of the world around them. From colonialism to nationalism and the nation-state, from war to the global political economy, from the growth of modern media to science and technology, all these are essential to a classical liberal education.

The faculty is a mix of local and foreign professors, all of whom are PhD’s apart from renowned film director, Jamil Dehlavi and communication designer and editor of Mazaar Bazaar, Saima Zaidi, both of whom are Master’s degree-holders.

President Rizvi told Newsline that the current aim of the university is to enrol about 1,000 students by 2020, which amounts to batches of 250 students every year.

So what kind of students is Habib University looking for?

“The operative term that we use at Habib University is ‘thoughtful,’” says Rizvi. “Students who demonstrate an inclination to be thoughtful, and who have the ability to reflect on the reality that surrounds them will have a better shot.”

The admission process is two-fold. A prospective student’s academic record counts for 50 per cent, while the rest depends on how the student performs during Habib University’s own admission test, which is followed by an interview.

Given the modern campus and the incredibly qualified faculty, it’s understandable that these amenities do not come cheap. The tuition fee of a single year at Habib University is about Rs 900,000. However, from the get go chancellor Rafiq Habib insisted that “getting into Habib University is the challenge, paying for it should not be.”

Unlike most universities in Pakistan which finance almost 90 per cent of their expenses through tuition fees, Habib University follows the endowment model, like most Ivy League universities in the US. As a result, tuition fees will cover less than half of the running expenses of Habib University.

“As part of our initial set-up, which is about five or six years, we have to grow an endowment of about US$ 40 to 50 million,” says Rizvi. “While we will always run a deficit of between US$ 2 to 4 million, if we can raise our endowment to about US$ 50 million, then it can finance that deficit as well.”

This is how Habib University can follow its needs-blind approach to admitting students. Students who are admitted to the university are then asked to submit a financial aid application which is assessed completely outside of the university by the  Habib University Foundation.

“Essentially, the university’s job is to admit the students, and then tell the foundation to find the money,” Rizvi explains with a laugh.

The Habib University Foundation thus offers several full and partial scholarships as well as  financial aid and work-study programmes and over 92 per cent of the current student population is receiving some form of financial aid.

There’s no doubt that Habib University’s arrival in Pakistan’s higher education sector is a welcome sight. In a country where government action in the education sector has been woefully inadequate for decades, it’s heartening to see the private sector step up and meet the challenge.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.