The Reluctant Researcher — Thoughts on working for a Rural Institute
Believing in the presumptions highlighted in the previous blog, I applied to a number of universities in Pakistan, after having decided to go back. I specially visited my country for one week to give presentations at three universities and also talked with and met with a few of my friends, seniors and teachers in the same context.
I got some positive responses from at least two of the universities, one of which was a rural College (which has now graduated to a degree awarding Institute) which was established by a famous cricketer, philanthropist and politician, on the outskirts of his native city, in around 2008.
The purpose with which the Institute was established and continue to operate is a noble one. It started off with offering undergraduate degrees of a university in UK, at a fraction of a price one would pay if to actually study there. A large majority of students belonged to really humble backgrounds studying almost free. The lure of a British degree attracted talented students from all regions of Pakistan and attracted me as well.
One thing I greatly appreciated while in Sweden was that two key services in a country must never be commercialized, education and medical facilities. It should either be in the hands of the government or heavily funded by it so that all fragments of society can equally benefit to truly create an egalitarian society.
Unfortunately, that is not the case in Pakistan. Government provided medical and educational facilities are inadequate at best while private universities, colleges and schools thrive. Only a handful of well known universities exist which are under funded and heavily politicized amid a plethora of other problems. Private institutes are prohibitively expensive, creating an immense imbalance in the society.
Among all this, the rural Institute was providing good education and continues to do so, while being from the private sector. This was the second grand initiative of its founder after a famous cancer hospital towards creating a more balanced society, though only one educational and medical institute can hardly contribute in correcting the imbalance.
However, the way in which the founder involved himself in establishing and running the hospital, he never involved himself in the Institute and left it to those he knows and trusts, the like of which are still seen around him. His not involving himself in the Institute created a lack of ownership on behalf of not only him but also those who were entrusted to run it. A former colleague and a very good friend of mine actually once said to directly to the founder that it feels like since hospital was built in memory of his mother, he give special attention to it than to our Institute which has a political angle as well since it is in the city from which he has been elected as an MNA multiple times.
The Institute was always run remotely from people in another city. The head of the institute was always someone who was not able to completely dedicate himself/herself to it, preferring to ‘fly-in and out’ of the Institute on a weekly basis (mostly) and not embedding oneself in the life of rural Pakistan in order to better appreciate the needs and challenges of such a life, even missing out on the beauty of it. Those who actually controlled the Institute were more interested in superficial and quantifiable things such as rankings, number of publications (in place of actual research with an impact) and marketing. Even the focus on research, though noble, was pretentious, focusing on the end result of publication (and that too on quantity than quality) rather than the whole process of scholarship and knowledge creation.
The founder established the Institute in a rural setting after being inspired by Oxford in the UK. However, establishing a new institute/college then running a successful one is entirely a different ball game altogether. Instead of the Institute becoming an Oxford of Pakistan, it started become rural version of another famous university in Pakistan with all those in a decision making capacity somehow belonging to that same university. Instead of having people in higher administration on merit from the full spectrum of society, people were there more on who the founder knew (much like the current Prime Minister of Pakistan runs his country) and he only seemed to know people that belonged to that famous university.
I am not demeaning the famous university, it is one of the best universities in Pakistan, but at this stage it is well established with entirely different sets of needs and challenges. The famous univeristy could have been a model for our Institute, but it would be the version of early years when it was trying to make a name for itself. Unfortunately, our Institute always followed the current model of the famous university, which was highly inadequate.
The people that were actually on ground of the Institute, however, took great pride in being part of such a noble mission. The Institute needed fresh ideas that were important to for establishing a nascent institute. They worked hard, extremely hard, sacrificing their own research in order for our Institute and its students to excel but they had minimal influence in the actual decision making, be it financial or otherwise, which eventually led to many, including me, to bade farewell to it (although I am technically on a leave at the time of writing this blog).
What did our Institute need? More on that in the next blog.