Going back to school – for good

Universities in Pakistan and across the developing world should help spread the light of learning, say Abdur Rehman Cheema and Mehvish Riaz

October 6, 2016
Heads with lightbulb brains (illustration)
Source: iStock

The UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, recently called on universities to sponsor a local school, in the hope of raising school standards. It would be a very good thing if universities in the developing world did something similar.

Many developing countries are facing educational crises around quality of teaching and enrolment levels in schools. In Pakistan, for example, educational planners tend to view the low enrolment and high dropout rates as a supply-side issue around the availability of schools and the quality of curricula and infrastructure.

But while all of this is important, the capacity of teachers is the key ingredient – and the country can ill afford to wait for the government to address this huge problem. Universities need to step into the breach. We take our inspiration from one of Pakistan’s unsung heroes, Master Ayub, a firefighter who for 30 years has taught thousands of underprivileged children in a park in Islamabad. “If we want Pakistan to prosper, teach one word to a child every day,” he once said. “Your sisters, your brothers, wherever the illiterate are – help them.”

If one person can do that without any external support, why can’t Pakistani universities and higher education institutions take responsibility for improving the quality of education in the schools and further education colleges in their vicinity? The links between them need not be formal and rigid. Instead, we should try to create a culture where university faculty and graduates drop in regularly – perhaps once a month – to share their knowledge and skills with pupils and teachers.

One suggestion is that academics could conduct workshops on spoken or written English, or, for the teachers, on teaching techniques and curriculum development. They could help the teachers use task-based and learner-centred teaching and assessment methods so that they rely less on rote learning. Similarly, university students could be tasked, as a requirement of their academic programmes, with encouraging learners at college or school – especially those in remote villages – to aspire to a top university. Students could also help conduct seminars on presentation and life skills, demonstrate scientific experiments, conduct guided study tours and facilitate discussions related to a movie screening.

If such collaborations were focused on state rather than private schools, it could also help reduce the quality gaps between those sectors that we find in many developing countries, where high-quality private provision tends to be available only to the children of the elite, leaving poor, publicly educated children unable to compete for highly paid jobs.

Such voluntary educational work is as urgently needed as donating blood and planting trees if the problems facing developing countries are to be addressed. In the US, for instance, it is common practice for students, professionals and organisations to voluntarily contribute to helping young people. One example is the “global guide” programme, under which international students and scholars are trained and invited to share aspects of their native cultures with American school students. Pupils not only learn about different cultures but are also exposed to concepts such as climate change, sustainable lifestyles, cultural diversity, alternative social norms and measures of economic growth and development. Everybody gains from participating in this experience of sharing knowledge and skills.

To make this happen, universities could lay on orientation programmes for students or faculty interested in taking part. They could also go further and offer incentives such as additional marks for students, or credit for academic faculty who take part. At a broader level, regulatory authorities could also encourage collaboration between universities and their local schools and colleges by linking it to funding and ranking.

Every single act of sharing the light of learning can help eliminate darkness and disappointment in developing countries. Even relatively small gestures should lead to recipients becoming more skilled communicators, more responsible citizens and more effective decision-makers.

Abdur Rehman Cheema is a development studies academic and practitioner based in Islamabad. He can be reached at arehmancheema@gmail.com. Mehvish Riaz is assistant professor of English at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, and was a Fulbright Scholar at New York University in 2015-16. She can be reached at mehvishriaz@ymail.com.

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