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Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani |

Universities have mushroomed all over Pakistan, and there is an ever-increasing number of individuals with University Degrees. On the face of it, this is progress. However, before we start celebrating, we need to step back and probe the intellectual development, and quality of learning, of our university graduates.

The majority of our university students are not developing the higher habits of mind: This is a massive intellectual waste, which has profound and long-term negative implications for individual and society

It is not possible to define University education in its specifics. However, it is possible to identify the higher and more generic purposes that are, or should be, common to University education. The higher purposes of university education are the development of the habits of mind of critical-analytical thinking, and seeking evidence-based knowledge; which in turn contribute to the personal and intellectual growth of the student as a thinking person.

As these (higher) goals are intangible, they cannot be taught through specific courses. Instead, they are achieved through putting in place a certain kind of curriculum, course design, and pedagogical methods; as well as assessment methods that can gauge a critical and in-depth understanding of the subject matter, and not just its memorization.

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Such a curriculum includes an initial period, usually one academic year, of exploration before the student decides on a specialist or Major area of study. During that year, the student can take courses in any subjects that are on offer. After the initial exploration, students make an informed choice about pursuing a subject area that is of greatest interest, and in line with their aptitude. Further, a student can have more than one Major area of specialization.

Despite the fact that our University education does not foster the higher purposes, there is still a significant minority of students who develop the critical-analytical and evidence-based approach

Obviously, the motivation level of a student who is studying an area of own choosing will be much higher, which has huge payoffs for academic and work productivity. This choice process also fosters the development of the intangible and crucial values of self-reliance and informed decision-making.

The student is also required to study core/compulsory courses in other areas, and/or a certain number of courses in other subjects that are not from within their chosen specialism. This ensures a well-rounded education and widens the student’s intellectual horizon. More importantly, the student learns that for a deeper and full understanding, matters have to be examined in their multi-dimensional complexity.

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Perhaps the most important aspect of University education is developing the student’s critical-analytical abilities. To achieve that end, courses are so structured that to get good, or even passing, grades students have to read much more than a textbook or two, engage in research (which is inbuilt into every course), and critically apply their mind to the content.

The pedagogical emphasis is on remembering course content and given our assessment methods, grades or marks are primarily based on a regurgitation of the memorized course content

Besides course design, pedagogical methods are also central to achieving this goal, an issue deserving separate discussion. The critical-analytical habit of mind is further ensured through assessment methods that not only evaluate knowing the subject matter but also the application of the mind (to the content).

The basis for developing the critical-analytical habit of mind is a process of learning that requires questioning, and not passively accepting and memorizing received information. When students are engaged in such a learning process, they achieve the much greater depth of knowledge and understanding. The habit of mind of evidence-based critical examination is transferable to all other matters in life. As well, the student learns to remain open to newly emerging research findings, so learning goes on for life and does not end on receipt of a University degree.

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How does our university education measure up in terms of achieving the higher purposes? To answer that question, one needs to first signpost two interlinked contextual realities. Our university education seems to be infected with the ‘Diploma Disease’, where the end-purpose is obtaining a piece of paper, the Degree.

The student is exposed to courses of a single specialist and has no knowledge of other areas, however relevant and important those may be for a proper understanding of their own specialist

So, we have a large cohort of individuals who have Degrees but have very poor and superficial knowledge or understanding of their subject area. Notwithstanding the in/famous statement that “a degree is a degree, whether fake or real”, even those with ‘real’ Degrees may not have a meaningful grasp of the subject-area in which they have supposedly specialized. The entire focus of both the student and the faculty seems to be the completion of the required number of courses needed to obtain a Degree, and never mind whether anything substantive was actually learned in the process.

Further, the primary purpose of University education is to increase the students’ earning potential. So, one witnesses a huge demand for areas which the parents and/or the students consider to have a high market potential. In itself, this is not a problem, but when real learning is not occurring even in those areas, it is a huge problem.

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The critical-analytical habit of mind is further ensured through assessment methods that not only evaluate knowing the subject matter but also the application of the mind

Given the prevailing curriculum structure, course design, pedagogical approaches, and assessment methods in our universities, the probability of achieving the higher purposes of University education is minimal. Our typical University curriculum is rigid. Students are admitted to university departments (read subject areas), or specialized educational institutions, and even if some soon find that they don’t have the aptitude and/or interest to continue studying that subject; they can’t change to another, and their interest and motivation plummet.

Further, there are massive firewalls between subject areas. The student is exposed to courses of a single specialist and has no knowledge of other areas, however relevant and important those may be for a proper understanding of their own specialist.

The higher purposes of university education are the development of the habits of mind of critical-analytical thinking, and seeking evidence-based knowledge; which in turn contribute to the personal and intellectual growth of the student as a thinking person

Still, further, even that narrow learning is superficial. Reading requirements are minimal and course-based research is almost non-existent. The pedagogical emphasis is on remembering (sometimes euphemistically called ‘knowing’) course content and given our assessment methods, grades or marks are primarily based on a regurgitation of the memorized course content. Thus, students complete the courses and get a Degree, but the higher purposes of university education are not achieved.

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Despite the fact that our University education does not foster the higher purposes, there is still a significant minority of students who develop the critical-analytical and evidence-based approach. That is a testament to the inherent curiosity and intelligence of our youth. But it also highlights that due to systemic shortcomings, the majority of our university students are not developing the higher habits of mind: This is a massive intellectual waste, which has profound and long-term negative implications for individual and society.

Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani is a Clinical Psychologist and Educationist, based in Islamabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Peshawar; Rector Foundation University, Islamabad; Director Centre for Higher Education Transformation, Islamabad; and recipient of the prestigious Fulbright New Century Scholars award. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani is a Clinical Psychologist and Educationist, based in Islamabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Peshawar; Rector Foundation University, Islamabad; Director Centre for Higher Education Transformation, Islamabad; and recipient of the prestigious Fulbright New Century Scholars award.

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