Why Punjab is failing to impart quality higher education

Lahore:16 April:A few years back, the Punjab Higher Education Department (HED) reduced the years of service required for promotion of a BS-17 lecturer to the post of assistant professor from 22 to 17. The decision-makers saw it as an improvement in their promotion formula, but it speaks volumes about the dismal service structure in the provincial education department. In simple words, it means that a young lecturer joining the department needs to wait for 17 long years to move just one step up the ladder.
Against this backdrop, many pertinent questions come to mind.
How can the education department attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession? How those who still join the profession because of their passion or inclination can maintain their motivation with such remote possibility of promotion?

Upward mobility is not the only issue impacting quality teaching; selection and training of teachers are equally important.

How does the Punjab HED selects teachers? Does it have any mechanism in place to test inclination of the candidates? Is there any mandatory training for the selected teachers before they take charge of classrooms?

Before looking for answers to these questions, let’s take a look at the numbers. The Punjab HED official website doesn’t offer an exact figure for students enrolled in the public sector colleges of Punjab, but the estimated numbers fall between 700,000 to 800,000 students who are taught by around 18,000 teachers, both men and women. One may be surprised to know that there is simply no mechanism to test a candidate’s aptitude for teaching, which is crucial to ensure that the person hired for imparting knowledge is competent and will help achieve the stated official goal of improving the quality of education. After all, good selection along with effective training and prospects for advancement in career are imperative for quality teaching.

Flawed hiring, non-existent training

It can be claimed that recruitments are done on merit through the Public Service Commission. But the issue is not the agency, but the criterion of selection. The existing procedure doesn’t look for good teachers; it picks up ‘top scorers’ from a big pool of unemployed degree-holders. For many, teaching is the only chance to get a job, and for some, it is the last choice after exhausting other options. Only a few are truly interested.

In such a scenario, many job-seekers, who by their inclination or by personal preferences are not built to teach, join the education profession. Obviously, such uninterested ‘teachers’ cannot inspire, guide and educate the youth.

In addition to proper selection, effective and mandatory training is essential for quality teaching. After hiring uninterested job seekers who see teaching as a profession with less work, more pay and job security, the Punjab HED directly unleashes them into classrooms without any training. In the absence of any professional training, fresh entrants are left to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’ from their seniors and peer-groups. And many seniors offer time-tested tips on how to do minimal-unavoidable work just to ensure the continuity of salary. Hence, no one should be surprised if work-avoidance is prevalent in the education department.

Finland’s education system sets an important example in this regard, where the main focus is on the selection of genuine teachers and rigorous training.

Progress – a mirage

The few who become teachers due to their commitment to profession don’t sail with the mainstream and find it really hard to maintain their resolve against many odds, particularly little chance for upward mobility. Their hard work and commitment notwithstanding, the first-ever-promotion has to come after 18 to 20 years in any case. It means giving the most productive years of one’s life in service of a department that doesn’t honour devotion or good work. In this context, how can the department attract or keep the best and brightest? No wonder many use it as a stopgap until they find greener pastures, and those who stay on usually take it as a part-time occupation.

Let us examine ‘promotions at snail’s’ pace’ and some related issues in a little detail. In the absence of time-scale for promotion, there is a complex numeric scheme called 4-tier formula. A relatively better pace of promotions, under this formula, depends on many factors like regular recruitment, updated seniority lists, and regular calculus of available posts. The department, however, practically makes this formula dysfunctional by making contract appointments (instead of regular appointments through the Public Service Commission), hiring teachers as college teacher interns (CTI) for the academic session, and by not updating seniority lists. All such ad-hoc appointments and inaction have adverse impacts on the promotion structure.

In addition, the outdated seniority lists and certain dichotomies between rules and practices make things more complicated and absolutely unfair. In principle, the preparation and presentation of the promotion cases are the duty of the administrative staff, but in practice, the whole burden is shifted to the teachers concerned. Quite unfairly and illegally, the teachers are asked to produce their own ‘confidential’ evaluation reports and for the missing performance evaluation reports (PER), they are made to suffer. In reality, the duty to maintain and keep PERs lies with the principal’s office or the directorate.

Another interesting example of shifting responsibility is that, according to a very strange rule, recommendations for promotion remain valid for one year. It implies that if the department fails to issue posting orders within a year, the recommendation of promotion would become void. Isn’t it senseless? Obviously, those who are recommended for promotion are not supposed to issue their own posting orders. Clearly, it is the responsibility of the department to issue posting orders. It’s a pity that an officer or teacher who waited for a posting for one year loses their recommendation for promotion in case of a mistake by the department. A Punjabi expression “sikha shahi” – which roughly denotes arbitrary rule – seems an appropriate description.

Possible solutions

Things can improve, but only if the education department can reconcile its stated objectives with operational procedures and practices. Currently, the department is exactly reaping what it sowed through its structures. It never made teaching profession attractive for the most talented professionals. It did let job-seeking non-teachers come in a large number and never imparted mandatory professional orientation, effective teaching methodology, and familiarity with rules and regulations through a compulsory training. It never incentivised performance or discouraged non-performance in an appropriate way. No wonder if all is not well. The official response, sadly, is a cost-benefit analysis following business-industry model, further burdening or just keep cursing the ‘idle teachers’ out of frustration.

The road to betterment goes through structural reforms. Firstly, the government should make a procedure to select good teachers and establish a teachers training academy. Secondly, every selected teacher must undergo a rigorous training for six to nine months before starting actual teaching. However, the duration of training and the courses can be decided after consultation with experts. Lastly, it should be accepted that a fair chance of upward mobility and reasonable salary packages are not the luxuries but essential requirements of a decent career. It is how the Punjab HED can hire, train and retain good teachers and resultantly provide quality teaching – a prerequisite for quality education.

Having said that, the department needs to acknowledge that the current policies and practices regarding recruitment, training and promotion are quite unhelpful. To know the real situation on the ground, the department needs to listen to the voices from the field. The official ‘proper-channel’ cannot tell the truth. The teachers who know the issues and can write and speak must also contribute to improving the system. It is a moral, social, and professional responsibility of the teachers to keep striving for change. Since they are an agent for change, they owe a greater, a higher (than any other consideration) responsibility to this society.

Shahid Anwar is an Islamabad-based analyst with experience of working in both academic and administrative positions at Punjab Higher Education Department. He can be reached at .Express News.

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