E learning is a positive phenomenon, we shouldn’t be afraid of it.
Interviewed by Dr Shabbir Sarwar, Maryam Imran, Mehwish Liaqat
We have announced prizes for researchers creating impactful and quality research and also thinking of starting a law school, Mass Communication department and Business Administration. We need to enhance our academia and industry linkages because the entrepreneurial mindset needs to be improved, better funding for research and to hire good staff. These views were expressed by Government College University (GCU) Vice Chancellor Dr Asghar Zaidi while he was in an interview with The Educationist. Here are the details.
The Educationist: Please tell about your early life and education?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: I studied till my intermediate in MCN College Multan. For my bachelors, I got admission in Government College Lahore and studied subjects that were considered very unusual like Economics, Mathematics and Statistics. That was where I felt, was a takeoff for me because nobody was studying that kind of combination which proved to be right at the end as some of my current research is also using lots of statistics and mathematical modeling in economic. Then I went to Quaid e Azam University for MSc in economics. Immediately after that, I went to study abroad in Netherlands, in Holland and I did another master; Masters in Development Studies because that was the subject, I wanted to study for the sake of being able to offer some expertise to our country.
Then, I went to do my PHD in Oxford. While I was still PhD student in Oxford, I got a job at London school of Economics where I worked for about four years and during that time I finished my PhD as well.
The Educationist: Since you have joined Government College University, what major reforms you have introduced in the last one year and two three months?
Dr Asghar Zaidi: For the first few months, we embarked on lots of interesting ideas. The first challenge, I felt was that the intermediate class was not organized in a manner, students were not coming to the college and they were given the opportunity to go to the board and study in academies and use Government College University’s name and I said “No”. Nobody who hasn’t 75% attendance will not be allowed in the board examination and that created a little difference as I started about a biometric system to coordinate the intermediate class so that the students realize the importance of attendance and studying in the college with the help of biometric system.
During Covid 19, I developed a comprehensive online teaching policy that helped people. We have now done admission and for the first time we are claiming that not a single admission is done out of merit and that includes extracurricular as well as the sports. Then every year we appoint lots of staff on visiting basis and the past practices were that the chairpersons made a recommendation about something and then the vice Chancellor would sign them.
The Educationist: Under all this, what is your future vision?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: My future reforms evolve around five points, first one is the quality of teaching which involves faculty training as we hire the good people but we put them right in front of students without helping them to prepare for the challenges that one faces in teaching. Another aspect of quality education is the linkage between academia and industry and I’m trying to strengthen my research innovation and commercialization and continue to establish great links with our industry. Second point is impactful research; the research that we all have been used to is mainly for appointments and promotions. What I want to bring a change in my university here is to encourage creating in centre research which will create social impact. So, we have now announced a surprise that each one researcher from the faculty will get a prize of research for producing an impact on the society.
Third part is about internationalization, as I think the main benefit of myself and people like Dr. Hanan to come back to Pakistan is to basically bring with us the good international standards as better teaching, more effective research and collaborations in the team work internally as well as externally to enhance the quotation of the university so that we could have a better international ranking.
Fourth point is Infrastructure, and it not only means the civil infrastructure but in particular IT structure. I receive pals of files and often missing files and papers and all sort of things because nobody has ever digitalized that. So, we are not barking on the system called campus management.
Fifth and final vision point is what I call my strategic vision, it is governance and I already mentioned some steps I’ve already taken are about appointment of staff on merit basis, admissions on merit basis, promotions on merit basis so governance, we have to make sure that we do everything based on merit and that’s the major benefit you draw when you appoint somebody on merit, they do their job on merit so that’s how we’re planning to do.
This is my second year 2021 and I want to make this year, a year, in which all these initiatives will come about and some new programs would be started as we are thinking of starting a law school, Mass Communication department and Business Administration. For me, this year is particularly important because this is the year of reforms whereas the third and fourth year would be the year of consolidation because I know when you leave then there is no guarantee that anyone else will be able to dig your measure forward. Another major deal for Government College that has happened since I joined is that in the history of Government College, we have never moved from this campus to any other campus but now for the first time we have started a new campus.
The Educationist: Sir two of the indicators which are mentioned in the university rankings are student teacher ranking, PhD teachers and number of post graduate and MPhil students. So how do you see this? As still the number of MPhil and doctorate students is less than as compared to other general candid of universities.
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: This is an area in which we are continuously observing improvement. You are right, the starting point was that we didn’t have postgraduate classes but now it is becoming very strong. We have very good PhD and MPhil student ratio to other students. We need to do more particularly in political science and in history. These are two good departments and we need to do better in these departments.
The Educationist: Sir, students have been shifted to online platforms. According to your viewpoint, is it beneficial for them or created more panic among them?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: I personally believe that E-learning is a positive phenomenon and we had to move on to E-learning. Many top-universities of the world were already doing lots of E learning and they were doing it long in before COVID-19. They saw the advantage and virtue in that and we missed that train. I think E learning is the major element of globalization and we missed that opportunity and now due to COVID-19, it’s been imposed on us and we had to learn it and, in that process, we have developed a new tool kit.
There are three elements, which are necessary for it to become more positive. One, Government has to do a major investment in IT sector. Government has to really make sure that even though you are sitting in a village or in a town, you still have signal. The second point, which I think you will understand, is that we need to change our mindset. Students as well as teachers need to change their mindset and should be more accepting towards E learning. Third is that we need to bring about major changes in our setup. For instance; if we want E learning to prosper, we need to make sure each teacher has a laptop, every student has some mobile handset and in the time, when budgets are squeezed, we can’t afford to provide internet connection and laptop to each of the teacher. Slowly we are embarking on that. So, E learning in my view is a positive phenomenon and we should not be afraid of it.
The Educationist: There is a conception in our society that these days mostly institutes are producing depressed graduates and there is lack of entrepreneurial mindset. What’s your take on it?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: Very interesting question and that’s what I was saying we need to enhance our academia and industry linkages because the entrepreneurial mindset needs to be improved. Entrepreneurial mindset, again number of things need to get done right and I think it’s a process, we can’t just suddenly change the curriculum from this type to that and there will be more entrepreneurs.
It’s a process in which we need our students to realize that it’s better to focus on learning outcomes than on marks. Most of our students unfortunately are just chasing 90% marks and they end up learning very little in that pursuit whereas if they focus on learning outcomes and the market is such, that says, put this transcript here on the side, I want to know what actually you can do in my industry.
The Educationist: Being head of one of the most prestigious institution of country, what are the major issues or pressures you have to face?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: The major pressure is as I said is the faculty training. Our staff does very good with minimal of resources but we need more resources for their training, we need better incentives for them.
LUMS and FC takes away a lot of good teachers because they offer so much better salary package and just because we are public sector university and don’t have that many resources to spare, we keep losing our good staff to these other universities. Punjab University even offers much better terms of reference, terms of employment than we can offer. So, we need better funding. We need better funding for public sector universities from HEC, from other sources, so that we may continue to hire good staff.
The Educationist: Sir, in this connection, when we say HEC or government
is not supporting the policy of funding more to universities, HEC says that following the international standard model, universities must generate their own funds on their own resources. So, whether GCU is doing anything to generate on its own like Punjab University is doing.
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: This year, we have started a couple of new programs and for at least five departments; we have now doubled the size of the classrooms. We used to take one section and now we take two sections. So, we are doing some but we have to move in with great caution because we don’t just want it to be a factory to graduate producers. We want to maintain quality and generate excellence. I think, that should not be the model which is basically horizontal expansion, that we just keep adding classes to an existing set that we had but I think the expansion should be vertical expansion, you identify these are the good departments we have and you make them stand out even more than before. I think if once we have excellence in certain fields, we can always generate funds, research funds and other funds which would provide us the basic funding.
The Educationist: What about the policy regarding Associate degree program launch as thousands of people work part time and complete their graduation and they even compete competitive examination, don’t you think their way has been stopped? They just used to spend 8 to 10, 000 and do their graduation and now they will have to spend 80,000 or more to complete their degree and some people even cannot afford it.
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: The problem somewhere lies in how you plan that four-year program, you have to plan the program in a manner that even if somebody leave out in the first two years, they cover a lot of those aspects necessary for somebody to take with him or her to the market. So actually, then you have to think about your four-year program into two lots. Two-year program which completes with some research and some knowledge of entrepreneurship, so they come into the third and fourth year and get initial knowledge of a subject and become specialist in that and I think if you do that four years program in this manner and you have focused third and fourth year entirely on that subject then I think it would be less than a problem that straight away they go to PhD because you have that final two years.
The Educationist: What about those students who cannot afford to get admission and higher education, they actually used to get benefit from the private BA program.
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: That is actually unfortunate that we haven’t provided any alternative for them but the idea that Maryam and Mehwish were pointing about E-learning, many of the establishing institutions like Government College University, Punjab University can make it possible for the people to learn through E-learning. So, if there’s a good connectivity then there’s no reason why somebody from the village have to migrate himself or herself to the city and be present at the campus instead, they can sit in home and follow the same standard of education and then through that association, we Government College University can send their forms for the examination and bring about all those reforms that problem can be dealt with.
The Educationist: In United States and Europe, universities get millions of dollars for research. What is your strategy for GCU to improve research culture, how will you encourage your faculty to get local and international research grants?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: If we can get international funding then we can resolve part of that problem and also help our staff to do good research with foreign colleagues and funding collaborators. And in that way, they will prove the quality. How you and I became good researcher because some topic excited us and then we really wanted to get to the bottom of that topic and that’s why we emphasize on that societal impact, the impactful research that I think will excite people to something that would create immediate impact on society and then create a good research culture. Also, faculty training is very essential that faculty should help students to rise better, to think critically. So that’s unfortunately has been missing but now there’s an improvement coming in, certainly in GCU through my majors which will help students come better writers and critical thinkers.
The Educationist: How much the population aging factor is involved in unstable economy of Pakistan?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: It’s at the moment high fertility is the major problem, there are too many children born. In principle there’s nothing wrong having children. What is wrong is not to give them good education and good health so they end up doing child labor and begging. We need to really make people realize that having fewer children is beneficial for them and for the society as a whole.
Over the longer term, Pakistan is going to face population tsunami which nobody is aware of but I can see it coming and that tsunami is hundreds of older persons who would be living in our society.
At the moment we are one of 15 countries in the world, who have ten million older persons, by older persons we mean age 60 plus. By the time we reach 2050, we will be among those top twenty countries in the world having more than 40 million older persons in the country and with that large number of older persons with a poor level of public health status and even more importantly poor preparation of our families; girls will be facing double challenge. It’s going to be a public health challenge and families challenge specially for women, because as in our culture, women are the ones who provide care at home and it’s going to be a challenge in economy if we don’t bring about policies. So, it becomes a disaster tsunami, it will be very difficult to handle.
The Educationist: Sir, you have studied and also taught at different national and international universities, would you like to highlight any similarity or difference between the students over there and in Pakistan?
Dr. Asghar Zaidi: The students abroad are very hard working. Whatever they do, they do that with complete excellence and only if we bring that spirit to our students then see the change. No one will be able to stop them.