Sifting wheat from chaff



 By Zubeida Mustafa

IT is college admission season. Look up the newspapers and you find them flooded with ads inviting applications for admission to impressive-sounding institutes, colleges and even universities claiming affiliation with foreign universities with all kinds of fancy names, mainly American and British.

Is this a manifestation of the process the Guardian of London dubbed as the “internationalization of higher education”? Partially, yes. In Britain they term it as trade in knowledge and skills. The white man’s burden is still around it would appear and the education sector needs the most help.

Hence these institutions, which have mushroomed all over the country. They are conducting the overseas validated courses on behalf of foreign universities under, so it is claimed, tightly defined and rigorously enforced conditions. Through these franchise and their distance learning programmes for overseas students the British universities alone are earning a neat 12 billion dollars a year. The American universities with their wider reach must be generating even more.

It might sound cynical but the fact is that the system operates on the same lines as the franchise which Coca Cola and McDonald award to companies and entrepreneurs in Third World countries. An ad in a local paper recently announced that franchise and affiliations were “available on feasible terms” of American/British universities. “You could be in business immediately” it proclaimed quite unabashedly.

When profits are the motivating force – especially when middlemen are also involved – how can one be sure that the education being imparted is really worth its weight in the dollars that are charged as fees? Appearances can be deceptive and claims can be exaggerated. But is there a way of ascertaining that?

The fact is that these institutions claiming foreign affiliations are certainly more attractive than the indigenous stuff that we have all over the city, even in the low income localities. Whether they are housed in palatial or modest premises, these institutions are reasonably clean and decent even if they do not have a luxurious finish. Invariably their prospectus is printed on glossy paper and their academic courses seem to be more logical and in time with the demands of the marketplace. If they are attracting enough students to remain in business, these institutions must be fulfilling a need which our colleges and universities are failing to.

Generally the fees structure is such that one must be prepared to shell out anything from Rs 75,000 to Rs 132,000 per year. A cheaper package will be available for Rs 25,000 per annum as well. The duration of the course is generally two years, though some have a four-year course, which makes their degree more expensive.

Generally the courses offered are in computer science/information technology and business management, the subjects most in demand. The problem with these institutions is that like the spurious drugs and the quacks, which have flooded the market, there is no way of finding out which of these institutions is the genuine one.

There are two aspects of the matter. One is the nature of the control and checks the parent universities exercise on the franchised institution. Second are the credentials of the foreign parent universities themselves, which are said to be giving the franchise. The institutions in Pakistan claim that the parent university sets the guidelines for the courses, has a say in the recruitment of the staff and sends an external examiner to check on the conduct of examinations and marking of scripts. But this writer could obtain a response from only one university in Australia to the queries e-mailed to the parent institutions on the addresses supplied.

You are guided to impressive looking websites, which also display a sample of the degree/certificate they award. But send them a message requesting for some information and you draw a blank. What makes the whole show very dubious is the fact that the e-mails and telephone numbers supplied on the website for the so-called Karachi campus never respond to callers. Obviously the web is being made use of for generating business in education.

What is most significant is that these universities are not the well-known institutions of the US and the UK with whose name one is familiar in this part of the world. It has been reported that some of these franchise-awarding universities are actually housed in one room in some remote corner of America and run their money minting business from there. That these institutions are having a field day is pretty obvious. A big ad in the papers a few months ago carried a warning from a foreign university that it had cancelled its affiliation with an institute in Karachi accusing it of fraud. Six months later, the institute is happily flourishing – it claims to have 40 students on its rolls and is getting set for new admissions. Needless to say, it continues to claim affiliation with the parent university, which disowned it. But the credentials of the parent university are itself suspect. A query to the e-mail address given in the ad failed to evoke a reply.

What is most disconcerting is the way the government has turned a blind eye to this ugly phenomenon, which testifies to the crisis in the education sector in Pakistan. Its only response has been in the form of a statement from the University Grants Commission in Islamabad listing the universities and institutions recognized by it.

As could have been expected, the Commission has disowned most of these institutions. Yet one of them styles itself as the oldest private university in Pakistan having been set up in 1984 (when the parent university’s website says it was established in 1994). It has nine campuses in different cities.

The UGC announcement provoked a war of words with the university retaliating by claiming that the Sindh Assembly had passed a bill in March this year granting it a charter. This has been disputed by the UGC, which says the governor has not signed the bill. The most intriguing aspect of this matter is that the Sindh Assembly has been dysfunctional since October 1998 yet has been reported to be handing out charters to private universities by the dozens.

Small wonder this institution decided to go to the Sindh Assembly for a charter when quite a few of its campuses are not even in this province.

Another institute, which was in competition with the IBA since the eighties now has a sorry tale to tell. The parent university in America cancelled its affiliation. Then its owner was allegedly kidnapped. His wife and sister had differences over its ownership and the former has set up another institute. Now they are fighting it out on the title – which of them is the real one.

Meanwhile, hundreds of students who had paid their fees are in a limbo. They have not received their degree and their money has been blocked. But if you talk to the students and the faculty, you get the impression that they are quite satisfied. “Where else should we go?” one of them asks. “Even though these institutions are expensive, they do not charge as much as you would have to pay if you go abroad.”

Sohail Akhtar, who works for an advertizing firm and studied for his MBA over the weekends from one of these universities, says he found the timings and schedules of their executive programmes extremely convenient because he had a job when he joined. As for their degrees being recognised or not, a teacher in one of these institutions says, “It depends on the applicant’s own skills and personality, and of course on the job market. I did my MBA from a nondescript university in South East Asia. Yet I have not had any problem getting a job and I know of IBA graduates not getting a job for years.”

Sohail admits that their standards are not so high and if he had a choice he would have thought twice before joining one of these institutions. Because their entrance tests are lenient, even the mediocre students manage to get admission. Because these institutions are basically commercial minded they encourage students to join, many of whom are from Urdu medium schools and would never get into IBA or LUMS.

“But they must be financially sound,” Sohail says, “because the fees are high.” This is not at all a satisfactory situation by any chance. The UGC has in effect abdicated its responsibility in the matter leaving it to the students to determine the credentials of the institution they are interested in joining. Pakistan is, perhaps, the only country in the world where operators are given unlimited freedom to run educational institutions with a free hand as profitable businesses. The system allows the chaff to mix with the grain and gives the students no yardstick to sift the two. In the process many are taken for a ride without they even being aware of it.  Source: Dawn, 11 Oct 1999