GVS Assistant Editor, Farah Adeed, sat down with Ibrahim Hasan Murad, President University of Management and Technology (UMT), Lahore, to explore and understand challenges to Pakistan’s education system in the wake of COVID-19.
How is the COVID-19 impacting Pakistan’s education system?
Ibrahim Murad: COVID-19 has impacted Pakistan’s education sector in unprecedented ways which led to both positive and negative outcomes. The biggest negative outcome is that despite the fact that the future of learning is all digital, Pakistan’s regulatory bodies, in particular the Higher Education Commission (HEC), and the academia at large have had severe reservations over this mode of knowledge delivery. If you consider advanced countries, they treat online education as important as conventional learning. Harvard, Stanford, and MIT have all invested extensively to develop high-tech infrastructure for e-learning. They are educating millions of students worldwide through this medium via Massive Open Online Courses MOOCs.
Online learning is supposed to disrupt conventional learning, and educational institutions as we know them today will probably close down in the next 20-30 years. There is a university closing down every week in the US. In fact, Harvard Professor Christian Clayton predicts that in the next few decades, 50% of all US universities will file for bankruptcy. Technology and IT are disrupting all conventional business models. For example, we have seen how NETFLIX, UBER, BOOKING.COM & KINDLE have closed down thousands of businesses worldwide, and made millions of jobs obsolete in a matter of a few years.
While the Pakistani nation hasn’t fully comprehended the way COVID-19 is reshaping life and livelihood, some sections of Pakistani academia understand that online learning is the future of education. This, for me, is a major positive outcome of the crisis. As a nation, we have always been late in realizing and adopting new ideas, and have been mostly averse to change. So an acceptance of the immense role online learning will have in the world of tomorrow at least takes us a step closer to the advanced countries in terms of having a futuristic outlook.
Another undesirable outcome of the crisis has been the loss of learning that students have had to suffer, as the Pakistani academia found itself in a “deer-in-the-headlight” situation when it came to offering online learning. Unfortunately, there would be major setbacks to learning outcomes, more specifically in areas where practical experiments in labs or hands-on learning was needed.
Being a leader in learning, UMT established its online learning division – eUMT- three years ago for a transition to the future, and to offer online programs. All faculty members receive a certification to teach online courses, and all participants learn English and take a career preparedness course – completely online. It serves as the stepping stone for our early awareness and eagerness to adopt a digitally-enforced environment.
Another extremely important matter that needs urgent attention is the infrastructure and facilities worth billions of rupees that are lying un- or underutilized across Pakistan’s education sector.
This raises key questions. We are to witness the fact that online academic activities are mostly operational and knowledge is still being disseminated, all without the need for hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and without millions of square feet of structures.
This shows that we need to wake up, be more dynamic, more strategic, and more futuristic in our approach so that we can tackle the challenges of tomorrow. Young Pakistani PhD faculty members from top universities of the world need to break the status quo in universities. They must apprise the old guard and senior leadership – who are usually set in their ways – regarding the latest developments in the sector and help them embrace the change completely.
How do you see the post-Corona Pakistan and its education system? Will there be any change?
Ibrahim Murad: In my humble opinion, it will take Pakistan at least two years post-Corona to be completely back on its feet. Nonetheless, I can see a much more resilient Pakistan on the other side of the crisis. I’m sure it will be a more tenacious Pakistan; a more successful and prosperous Pakistan. Anything great that someone wishes for can be achieved here. Allah has given Pakistan select challenges but our nation and people have always risen up to them.
This challenge will also enable and equip us to deal with even bigger challenges in the future. Our youth has shown remarkable perseverance in the face of crisis. They are our pride as they have continued their studies under extremely testing circumstances, which include, but are not limited to, huge mental stress, hot weather, Ramadan, and complete lockdown. This defines their ability to become strong leaders amidst all the chaos.
How are you dealing with COVID-19 at UMT?
Ibrahim Murad: Once we saw this pandemic taking roots in China, we understood that it was only a matter of time before Pakistan got affected by it. Even before the HEC asked us to close down the university, we took the initiative ourselves and decided to move towards online education. Our highly motivated, responsible, and committed team worked round the clock and within a few days, we had an almost workable plan that could be executed with great ease. We trained hundreds of faculty members in numerous sessions in no time, and thousands of participants were able to take online classes without any disruption.
I believe we were the first university in the country to go online completely. Around 25,000 students across three university campuses are making use of 2,700 courses being taught online in a synchronous system that caters to 10,000 learners in each of the daily 7 slots, 7 days a week with 24/7 support. Whether they use laptops, tablets, or mobile phones to access their learning material, our students continue learning from the comfort and safety of their homes.
We gave remote area participants special consideration and offered them the choice to withdraw if they wanted to. Sensing their deprivation, mainly due to a lack of internet connectivity, I appealed to the Prime Minister to provide free internet to students all over Pakistan. It’s a basic need of today, especially during the corona pandemic where everything from shopping to banking to business to education is being carried out online. I believe it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that high-speed internet is available in every corner of the country and the first step towards a progressive digital Pakistan.
We also expected participants to face financial difficulties, so we gave a blanket approval for the extension and postponement of dues; we also gave special waivers and then qarz e hasana to those who were extremely deserving. We wanted to ensure that financial difficulty did not hinder learning.
UMT has the privilege of hosting the largest scholarship program in Pakistan, started by late Dr Hasan Sohaib Murad shaheed, through which 10,000 awardees from 110 districts of Pakistan have been disbursed more than Rs 3.5 billion and have benefited from a life-changing experience.
We also wanted to ensure that our participants’ motivation and mental health remained unaffected. Therefore, the UMT’s Institute of Clinical Psychology launched counseling services for the entire UMT community. After a few weeks, the services were opened for public. Anyone can now take free counseling sessions in this time of great devastation.
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How do you see the government’s performance to combat the deadly pandemic? Or what alternative do you suggest?
Ibrahim Murad: I believe the government, especially the NDMA, has taken effective steps to counter the spread and effects of the pandemic, but there is always room for improvement. For starters, no relief package has been announced for the education sector or the non-profit sector as yet. The government must not neglect these entities as they play a vital role in these testing times and in the composition of a nation. There has been unemployment in the thousands and some NPOs are unable to provide relief and to sustain operations. My suggestion is that the government must provide interest-free loans to the non-profit sector and should authorize the State Bank of Pakistan to work with other banks to provide tuition fee financing on a concessional basis for students. In the absence of the same, hundreds of thousands of students will lose their right to education; hence, the right to a better future.
In order for the online teaching platform to be rooted strongly into our system, I suggest the HEC appoints a director to handle all the dynamics for the same in a formal and effective manner.
I would also like to point out here that while the private sector has played a leading role in continuing with education online, the public sector has greatly been exposed. Barring a few universities like Punjab University that rose to the challenge and transitioned to online education, others simply faltered. Now is the time for the government to think about the funding public sector universities receive and how dynamic they actually are. This is a crisis situation and serious rethinking must be done. Funding to public universities should ideally be based on a framework or a scorecard. As a matter of policy, higher-education institutions with better outcomes should get more resources from the taxpayers’ money, while low performing universities must be privatized.
Lastly, the prime minister and his team of experts have the confidence of the nation behind them, and with Allah’s help, Pakistanis will get through this together. It is essential to note that no single entity, be it the army, the government, the politicians, the bureaucracy, the healthcare sector or the civil society can counter this issue alone. There has to be a unique team effort to combat the deadly pandemic. Finally, during these unprecedented times, we must not forget our great Quaid and his advice to us – that as a people, we must unite, show faith, and be disciplined.