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“We produce students with strong basics and who are not irrationally invested in a particular method, but are willing to adapt to the workplace.”

President, Habib University, speaks to Aurora about what it means to offer a liberal arts education in Pakistan.
Updated 11 Mar, 2024 03:43pm

AURORA: What does a liberal arts education mean in a Pakistani context?

WASIF RIZVI: It means giving our students a breadth of intellectual experiences. In Pakistan, the challenge is that higher education never did develop a coherent undergraduate framework, and undergraduate education was basically either a sort of professional endeavour in medicine or engineering, or a cryptic two or three-year programme. This has been damaging because a high-quality undergraduate experience is the backbone of the higher learning enterprise. It is about curating inspired and engaged citizens who are aware about the world, can think critically and solve problems. Three-fourths of American undergraduates don’t ever go to grad schools because an undergraduate education is in itself comprehensively sufficient. All this was absent in Pakistan and we wanted to create, both structurally and academically, an example of how higher education should be approached. We wanted to create a platform that was hitherto missing; in other words, a four-year, coherent, well thought out and curated programme, irrespective of the discipline a student chooses to eventually pursue. To give them a common core to allow them to understand the world, history, philosophy, languages and other key humanities, as well as scientific subjects, which are the standard for all elite-quality undergraduate programmes. So that even if students are pursuing computer sciences or engineering, they will also have a perspective that allows them to make sense of the world and contribute to it. Bachelor’s programmes have been ignored in Pakistan. Harvard has its world-famous business, law and medical schools, but the core identity of Harvard will always be Harvard College where the Bachelor’s programmes are housed. This is where the university is invested in ensuring that a high-quality intellectual and academic experience is continuously developed in order to give its students the right kind of intellectual richness.

A: Why have Bachelor’s degree programmes been ignored in Pakistan?

WR: Pakistan, like many post-colonial societies, struggled to figure out what to do with its higher education and made a bet in favour of STEM learning and creating medical schools and engineering universities, without thinking about the larger national question of developing a university system that would enable students to become engaged, informed and rooted citizens. Higher education was viewed as a utilitarian entity required to be invested in some form of economic activity. This is a rather impoverished way of looking at higher education – and from the sixties onwards, Pakistan, from a policy perspective, has remained on that path. As a result, when the private universities came along, they did not venture to change the template. The first private university in Pakistan was a medical school, the second a business school, and the third a computer science one. When we were thinking about establishing a university, we wanted to perform a modest national service by developing a well thought out model for a good undergraduate education. This is how we arrived at the clarity of providing a liberal arts programme that would allow students the curricular breadth to pursue various types of majors, whether in STEM or non-STEM, but always armed with a broader, more engaged sense of knowledge and understanding of the world.

A: What were the challenges involved in achieving this, especially given the prevailing mindset that puts a premium on a functional type of education?

WR: Some of the barriers were already crumbling because there was a general sense that things were not working out. In post-9/11 Pakistan, universities were becoming irrelevant in terms of helping our young people make sense of the world around them and questions were being raised about the relevance of our universities in a difficult world. The workplace had become more complex and employers were not happy with the product they were getting. A broader understanding was required of what it means to work in a team, work with women and have the ability to deal with critical questions, and that technical expertise alone was not sufficient. It was, in fact, a way of indirectly questioning the existing higher education framework. Having said this, we had to engage in a lot of advocacy with students, parents and employers. All three had been inculcated with a higher education template that had existed for decades. Another problem was the cynicism towards private universities. The common perception was that they were mushrooming everywhere in order to pry on the desperation among students for some sort of higher education and that they were just money-making enterprises. We had to create trust and confidence, as well as solve the important problem of access.

A: What do you mean by access?

WR: Quality higher education costs a lot of money and automatically disenfranchises 95% of potential students. Habib University made a considered decision to be the first private university, outside of the United States, that would not recover its costs from its student body. In fact, we recover a very modest amount from our students and support 85% of all our students, many of them fully. Furthermore, we made sure that half of our students came from the Matric streams. We have about 5,000 to 6,000 students applying, so we have the luxury of handpicking 300 to 350 of them. Academically, there are flaws and gaps in both the A level and FSc streams. There are content issues like writing, English language, calculus, and computer programming, which require providing students with additional support which any adequate university should be able to provide.

A: How do you overcome the gaps that may occur in the quality of the secondary education imparted to your students?

WR: This was a very serious problem because almost all the enrolment in good universities was drawn, at the very least, from an A level background. We realised that the mission of a great liberal arts education cannot be realised without great diversity in the student body and we were successful in developing ways to craft that diversity. For example, half of our classes must come from local examination board backgrounds, and the other half is open (which means that anyone can apply) – and both sides are extremely competitive. The reality is that when students enter our university, they encounter a curriculum none of them are adequately prepared for, and this creates a healthy sense of being challenged.

A: How do you respond to people expressing scepticism about the value of a liberal arts education?

WR: The idea of a liberal arts education is even more vindicated in today’s world. When everything becomes obsolete so quickly and when technical expertise can become irrelevant two years down the road, students are better off acquiring an education that enables them to be curious and active learners – and no other educational platform prepares them for this better than liberal arts. Today, students have to be good communicators; they have to be able to solve problems by bringing together communities, show empathy and be creative and analytical, and again, there is no better platform that causes students to systematically acquire these skills than a liberal arts education. Since we started, many established utilitarian institutions have been trying to introduce some dimension of liberal arts within their own curricula, if only because employers are starting to see the value of this. Take engineering as an example. There is a big disconnect between what students learn in an engineering school versus what actually takes place in the industry, and a lot of on-the-job training is required. Employers want young recruits who are good at learning, and this is the sweet spot where an institution like Habib excels. The engineers we produce are very different from the ones who come out of a pure engineering school. They are curious, articulate, thoughtful and creative, which is what employers lean towards today – the same applies to banking and other industries. We produce students with strong basics and who are not irrationally invested in a particular method, but are willing to adapt to the workplace.

A: How do you ensure that your faculty is both willing and able to keep up with new ideas and methodologies and is qualified to teach in a way that engages today’s digital native generations?

WR: This debate is taking place within all good universities around the world. How do young people make sense of the world they inhabit; one that is deeply influenced by technology and virtual experiences? Universities need to become more dynamic and they are notoriously conservative institutions. They pride themselves on inspiring young minds and understanding fundamental and profound theories that are largely immutable. The trick is to connect with students in an inspiring way that develops their ability to be curious about learning and have the capacity to adjust to a volatile world. Habib University is a 21st-century university and we have institutionalised certain things that are unique to us and which have been appreciated around the world. They include mandatory reviews of the programmes and courses that form part of our academic calendar so that everything is revised and analysed and does not become ossified. We give our faculty a great deal of freedom to do this. We have made it part of a culture that compels us to look at ourselves critically and evolve accordingly. We have been fortunate to have attracted some extraordinary academics from around the world and who have led the development of that culture.

A: Broadly speaking, how many of your faculty are Pakistani and how many are foreign?

WR: About 15% of the faculty is made up of foreigners and all 100% of them have to hold a PhD or equivalent degree from a high-quality international university. I wish it wasn’t so, but Pakistani universities have failed in their ability to develop adequate academics. Nevertheless, there is a critical mass of academics of Pakistani origin whom we are seeking to attract to Habib.

A: As a private university in Pakistan, how much freedom do you have to challenge received thinking and introduce new ways of thinking when teaching subjects that may be considered sensitive?

WR: The idea of controls and restrictions in Pakistan is overblown. As a high-quality university, we are in a good position to touch upon sensitive or controversial subjects relatively easily. This is not done in the spirit of wanting to be controversial but with a sense of sincere intellectual and academic inquiry, and in that case, there is a calmness about it, whether we are discussing the creation of Pakistan, Islam or the history of colonialism. If a topic is historically sound, it becomes the discourse we want to advance. Habib University has been reasonably effective in creating discourses that have otherwise been thought difficult.

A: Would you agree that, overall, there is a tendency to disregard the value of human capital development in Pakistan?

WR: Habib has replaced the word ‘human capital’ with ‘student centricity’. The objective is to create an institution that views its student body as an intellectual asset. This may not be the case in other universities that are only invested in the programme they are delivering, and that is an adjustment they have to make. In the workplace, while lip service is paid in terms of developing people as assets, there is not a lot of evidence about how that investment is made and this is a conversation that needs to happen between academia and industry, especially in terms of how we can give credence and visibility to the idea of people as actual assets.

A: To what extent is your liberal arts programme focused on South Asia? Conventional liberal arts programmes tend to put the emphasis on Western thinkers, philosophers, musicians, poets and so on. Have you been able to skew some of the curricula towards being more localised, and is there enough research and source material to be able to do so?

WR: This is perhaps the most fundamental dimension of Habib University’s mission. We call it epistemic reparation. A big epistemic disservice has been done by pursuing an extremely impoverished Eurocentric programme in the name of academia. We are one of the few serious universities to address this issue. Almost all of our liberal arts experience is skewed towards creating citizens who can appreciate their reality; their sense of philosophy, their art, music and poetry from the point of view of their own civilisation. This is not easy because, from an epistemic perspective, a lot has been decimated or made invisible. Thankfully, a number of scholars around the world have worked on this and created legitimate content. Some of those scholars are connected with Habib University and some are actually at Habib. So there is a way of building this back. We have a very powerful Urdu literature programme which is a requirement for all students, and a powerful South Asian music programme which is one of our most subscribed electives. In this way, we are creating a balance of content and intellectual analysis that is localised and contextual. It is also one of the reasons why we are respected in global academia. We are not a cut-and-paste university.

A: What are your priorities for the next three or four years?

WR: The first is to create student residencies so that we can enrol students from outside Karachi in larger numbers – and even outside of Pakistan – and engender even greater diversity in our student body. The second is to create mid-career and leadership capacity programmes. To this end, we are working in collaboration with Stanford University to develop a robust programme whereby the industry can have a stronger and wider stakeholding role beyond what we are already doing.

Wasif Rizvi was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: