Sunday, June 20, 2010

Degrees of Dishonesty

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui 
Monday, 21 Jun, 2010

A NUMBER of lawmakers in Pakistan are suspected of possessing fake degrees. The shocking aspect of this is that custodians of the law may have hoodwinked the system and made their way into esteemed lawmaking institutions. The holders of fake degrees belong to different political parties suggesting the deep entrenchment of the culture of unethical practices in our socio-political fabric. 

Such unethical practices, however, were motivated by the political interests of dictators. The academic subversion started when Gen Ziaul Haq announced that the madressah asnad would be equated with the degrees of formal educational institutions — although the curricula of madressahs and formal educational institutions were poles apart. This politically motivated move was to please the religious factions that always sided with army-led governments. During the reign of Gen Musharraf, who pretended to champion ‘enlightened moderation’, it was decided that the old guard would be sidelined and a new breed of politicians accepting his agenda patronised. A new order was passed making graduation (BA) mandatory for lawmakers. At the same time Musharraf intended to marginalise the PPP and the PML-N, for which it was important that the MMA be facilitated. 

The problem, however, was that Zia’s order regarding the equivalence of the madressah asnad was confined to madressah students. Musharraf’s government extended the relevance of that order to contesting elections. This allowed many MMA candidates to contest the 2002 elections and become part of the assemblies. For the first time, the religious parties formed a government at the provincial level. 

The degrees of around 81 members of the MMA (29 MNAs and 52 MPAs) were challenged in the courts. The Musharraf government used this to blackmail the MMA into supporting its policies, including the notorious 17th Amendment. One of the main reasons the MMA played the role of friendly opposition was the sword of disqualification dangling over the heads of its members. Even with cases ongoing in courts, MMA members with controversial degrees managed to complete their terms. This was mainly because of the marriage of convenience between the MMA and the Musharraf government. 

The 2008 elections gave potential candidates sufficient time to arrange for degrees. Non-graduate candidates explored different options and some managed to get fake degrees. The acquisition of fake degrees is not much of a problem, even in developed countries. In Pakistan, fake degrees can be obtained through multiple means. Gangs involved in this business have access to special paper on which degrees are printed, and logos, stamps and other sophisticated techniques such as watermark printing. One can buy a fake degree in any discipline. 

Another major source of such degrees includes online universities that only exist on paper. They charge you a certain amount and offer you degrees including a PhD. Besides these, we have some universities in the private sector which managed to get a charter but demonstrate little rigour in their academic policies and processes, including admission, attendance and assessment. Their main objective is to mint money. 

One of the contributions of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was to challenge the malpractices of such universities. In return tremendous pressure was mounted on the HEC, which suggests the powerful political backing enjoyed by these universities. 

The ultimate result was that a number of candidates managed to acquire fake degrees, contested the elections and became part of prestigious lawmaking bodies. Cases were filed to challenge the degrees of a number of candidates of different political parties. The Supreme Court has given its verdict and five to six members have been asked to resign on charges of possessing fake degrees. Re-elections have been held involving heavy funds. 

Such episodes raise legitimate questions, one being that of responsibility. Are the individuals responsible for having cheated? Or should the party leadership be blamed for issuing election tickets to holders of fake degrees? Or is it the election commission that is responsible, since it scrutinised the applications and let fake degree holders contest the elections, despite the graduation condition? In fact, the individuals, their party leadership and the election commission are all equally responsible. 

In all civilised societies, cheating and unethical practices are not only disliked strict penalties are also imposed on dishonest persons. Here hardly any defaulter receives punishment. The irony is that in some cases they are rewarded by their parties by being awarded fresh tickets for the by-elections. In one case the prime minister himself went to the election meeting of a candidate who was found guilty of possessing a fake degree. 

According to the latest information, the degrees of many lawmakers have been received by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for verification. The whole process should be completed in a couple of weeks. It is feared that some more members could be de-seated and if the numbers rise, there could be justification for fresh elections which would jolt our democratic system. 

In an interesting parallel move, the HEC has decided to verify the degrees of faculty members of universities and higher education institutions as well. Identifying the holders of fake degrees will be a welcome move. There should be zero tolerance in this regard in order to uphold the principles of honesty, truthfulness and integrity.

The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mujhe Muhabbat se Dar Lagta He

Mujhe Muhabbat Se Dar Lagta He
Rakshinda Parveen
Impressions of Dr Shahid Siddiqui

Just finished reading  this book of prose poems by Dr Rakshinda Parveen.  Rakhshinda as an artist has successfully managed to capture some elusive aspects of life which can only be felt and cannot be described.  Her poems move beyond her personal grief and become powerful commentary on the oppressive forces of society that are making the life of marginalized groups miserable.  One can see a feminine voice thorough out the poem that, at times, is scared.  This fear owes to the sudden awareness of some stark realities of life.  But the same feminine voice becomes bold and daring and, making use of experiential wisdom, challenges the forces of oppressions.  A book I liked so much for its simplicity, sensitivity, and contemporary sensibility.  Congrats Rakhshinda. Thanks for sharing with me your book.  We expect more from you.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Education in Balochistan

by Dr Shahid Siddiqui
7 June, 2010
IN the last couple of months a number of teachers have been targeted and killed in Balochistan. Some of them had been living there for more than four decades and were immersed in the local culture.

They included teachers, principals of colleges, a university dean, an acting vice-chancellor and the education minister. A factor common to all these people was that they were non-locals and came from other provinces. The repercussions of these targeted killings are multi-dimensional but the main victim appears to be education.

Balochistan is the largest province in the country with an area of 347,190sq km, or 43 per cent of the total area of Pakistan. The population constitutes only five per cent of the country’s total population. It is this vast difference between area and population that attracted people from other provinces to come and settle here. Among them were a number of educationists who made important contributions in their field.

It is important to note that it’s not essentially a population-related issue and in the case of Balochistan the population is projected as decreasing by 1.3 per cent by 2025. The apparent cause of the problems is of a political nature and has led to a sense of deprivation and socio-political exclusion.

Balochistan has a history of army operations that goes back to the initial years of Pakistan. The last one was during the Musharraf era when Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in an operation ordered by Pervez Musharraf and widely condemned. The backlash of this murder was swift and severe.

The anger was demonstrated in many ways, as has also been the case in the past when armed resistance occurred. Yet on all those occasions, violent reaction was confined to the rural areas and the targets were not civilians, especially not teachers. The teaching profession has enjoyed much respect by the masses in traditional Baloch society. It is a recent and surprising phenomenon that political revenge has picked on teachers as targets. This has had a direct impact on education.

The role of education in the process of development is considered crucial. We live in an age of knowledge economy where the literate citizens of a country constitute its human capital, which plays a significant role in national development. A more comprehensive definition of development includes education, in addition to income and health.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan (2009-10) Balochistan lags behind in terms of the literacy rate, which is 46 per cent as compared to 59 per cent in Punjab, 56 per cent Sindh and 49 per cent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Gender Parity Index (GPI), as defined in the Economic Survey of Pakistan, is the ratio of females’ enrolment to the males’ enrolment. A GPI of more than one indicates that in proportion to every male in the school, there is more than one female”. The GPI index score for Balochistan is 0.35 which is lower than Punjab (0.69), Sindh (0.61) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (0.49).

As part of the gender divide in education, there is a vast difference in the literacy rate between the urban and rural areas of Balochistan. These unequal divides on the basis of gender and area suggest that a sizable portion of the population has not been given the opportunity of obtaining education and is thus not fully active in the process of development.

The recent phase of unrest that started with the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 took an ugly turn when the teachers came under attack and many were killed. These killings had associated chain reactions. Teachers who came from other provinces suddenly found they were unsafe and started applying for transfers. According to one estimate more than 70 faculty members of the University of Balochistan have submitted transfer applications. This is a huge number given that there are only 200 faculty members in all. A sudden and en masse departure of qualified faculty will have a serious effect on the quality of education.

Besides the university, a number of colleges are now also closed. The school system has stopped working, for even those that remain open are practically dysfunctional because of the absence of faculty members and very low student attendance.

This is a disturbing situation that has a direct impact on Balochistan’s younger generation. Long closures of educational institutions, the sudden departure of qualified faculty, the very intolerant attitude towards other ethnic groups and a threatening environment on campus will have a negative impact on the academic scene.

Balochistan, which is already lagging behind in terms of development, needs innovative initiatives to cope with the educational challenges of quantity, quality and fair distribution on the basis of gender and the rural-urban divide. Such initiatives were launched a couple of decades ago with the help of foreign funding agencies and had some positive outcomes for students and teachers. All of them have now, unfortunately, come to a halt.

The local teachers and students have tremendous potential. What they need is exposure to quality education and professional experience. It is through education that Balochistan can realise the dream of sustainable socio-economic development that promises enhanced political awareness and a creative means for exploring the freedom of expression and ideas. But education that ensures such dreams can take place only on campuses with peaceful classroom interactions, where disagreement can be shown in an agreeable manner and where teachers are respected and considered important.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.
My blog: