Published in Sep-Oct 2021
MARIAM ALI BAIG: In a world of constant disruption, how has IBA evolved and adapted?
S. AKBAR ZAIDI: IBA is about 65 years old. It was set up as a business school and even today, it is referred to as the IBA. However, in the nineties, IBA was given a charter to issue its own degrees and evolved into a university. We moved away from strictly business studies to social science, economics, computer science and mathematics. Today, we have three independent autonomous schools; the School of Business Studies, the School of Economics and Social Sciences and the School of Mathematics and Computer Science. Today, we have 5,000 students, whereas we had about 200 under the MBA programme. Once we became a university, we hired professionals with academic degrees and our emphasis is on appointing PhDs and academics. We have 142 full-time faculty members of which about 100 are PhDs. People forget that we are in the public sector and controlled by the Government of Sindh and by the Higher Education Commission.
MAB: What is IBA doing to prepare students for the real world in terms of their ability to be agile and adapt?
SAZ: Many of our professors have experience of the real world. They come from industry and we have a lot of visiting faculty and guest lecturers and there are ongoing multiple faculty-industry interactions to keep us constantly in touch with the market. Our students are among the highest paid graduates coming out of any university in Pakistan. Our students learn how to handle pressure. We do not make unnecessary allowances; there is a work plan and they have to work within it. You can learn only so much from a book; at IBA they learn organisation, discipline and responsibility. This is very much part of our educational environment.
MAB: From which educational streams do you draw the majority of your students?
SAZ: People often think of IBA as an elite institution and that students come from the Defence and Clifton areas; in fact, they come from Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Gulshan-e-Iqbal and North Karachi – and they have to do exceedingly well to gain admission. Yes, some of our students come from Beaconhouse, Lyceum, Nixor, which are fairly expensive schools – not many from Karachi Grammar, because they usually go abroad. Twenty-five percent of our students are on financial aid. If someone can get admission to IBA, they do not have to worry about their fees; we will pay them. We have an extensive outreach programme across Pakistan – the National Talent Hunt Program (NTHP) – through which we get loads of students from Gilgit-Baltistan, who are very good because they come from the Aga Khan network. We have students from Balochistan, FATA and loads from Tharparkar. IBA has a lot of diversity. There is no discrimination on the grounds of religion, ethnicity or gender. We have people who have transitioned from one gender to another and it’s no big deal and we do not have quotas; it is merit. If they do well enough to gain admission to IBA, their life is made.
MAB: Are students from the remoter areas disadvantaged by their prior education?
SAZ: No matter your background, the day you become an IBA student, your life will change. IBA makes a huge difference in the lives of students from less privileged backgrounds. When a child from an elite school graduates from IBA, it is not a big deal, but students from, for example, Tharparkar, who go back home after graduating, can change the entire community around them; they have a huge social cataclysmic effect. There are so many stories about students recruited under the NTHP. They go back home and earn Rs 60,000 to 80,000 a month and support their entire family. After the second year at IBA, you cannot tell whether a student is from Tharparkar or somewhere else. There is a socialisation process that happens at IBA.
MAB: Given the high standards of admission, how do students from government or non-elite private schools gain admission?
SAZ: They are actually better than students from O’ and A’ level schools. We have scores of students from The Citizens Foundation Schools (TCF), from the Aga Khan Education Network, from the intermediate and matric stream, and they all do very well.
MAB: Do any of them come from the government run schools?
SAZ: No, but private is a word that is often misunderstood. They are not private schools like the Convent of Jesus and Mary or St. Joseph’s; more middle- to lower-middle income private schools. In Orangi, for example, there are home schools where women teach children from the neighbourhood and they are also private schools.
MAB: And they make the grade?
SAZ: Easily. We receive 12,000 applications every year and take 1,100, which is less than 10%. Our rejection rate is higher than that of any Ivy League university, because people want to come to IBA. IBA is extremely prestigious, especially for the lower-middle and middle-income groups – they know it will change their life. They will sit for the entrance examination two or even three times to get in. They practise for a year to clear the examination test. They are that determined.
MAB: Do you think the Single National Curriculum (SNC) will affect the quality of these private schools?
SAZ: I think the SNC is a disaster. Schools in the provinces should be allowed to diversify and have their own reading materials. There is a need for different segments of society to be educated in a way that is culturally inclusive, and sometimes this doesn’t happen. The number of students taking O’ and A’ levels is going up every year because of the failure of the Pakistani education system. The SNC will bring standards down. If you want everyone to be on the same level, it means bringing standards down. The SNC is a great disservice. The government has wasted its time on the SNC; it should be investing in quality education. There have been so many experiments with education and we are still stuck where we were 40 years ago. This is yet another experiment and it is bound to fail.
MAB: Should the private sector collaborate more with academia in order to prepare students for the job market?
SAZ: No matter where one is educated, once you get into the real world, you unlearn and relearn. Whether you are a medical student or an engineer, or have a degree in social science or mathematics, you have the basics; you have learned enough to get a job, and once on the job, you are trained as per the requirements of the industry and of the particular firm. We educate students so that they can get into Unilever or Shan Foods, Getz Pharma or GlaxoSmithKline, yet we know that two years later, they will be a different product. However, it is what they have learned here that has enabled them to get into those companies. Whatever one learns at any university is always incomplete in the real world and has to be built upon. This is a global phenomenon. The important thing is to get a good overall education in terms of the curriculum, academics, ethics and values. This is what makes you a viable product for the job market.
MAB: What is your ambition for the IBA?
SAZ: To make IBA one of the best universities in this part of the world and the key requirement is one, exceptional faculty, two, exceptional faculty and three, exceptional faculty. IBA has exceptionally good students and if our faculty is better than our students, or at least at par with them, we will have the best university anywhere in the world. If I were to sum up my vision, it would be intellectual excellence. I am not worried about IBA students finding jobs; everybody who graduates from IBA finds one. I want my students to spend four years here and get the exceptional academic and real-life experiences that will enable them to function effectively in the real world.
MAB: One of the criticisms levelled at the education system in Pakistan is that it does not put sufficient emphasis on critical thinking and intellectual rigour.
SAZ: I don’t think this is the fault of the universities; it is a national problem. As a country, we have serious problems in terms of critical thinking, freedom of thought and expression and argumentation. IBA is one of Pakistan’s islands of excellence and we have the numbers to prove it. IBA graduates go places. It is the standard of our education and our search for excellence that makes more and more people want to come here.
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