Oct 20, 2011

Degrees, doctorates and dishonesty

Kamila Hyat The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor The text of the citation was read out at the Karachi University where a beaming Mr Rehman Malik, clad in a green and gold robe plus of course the traditional mortar cap, could easily be mistaken as the work of a comic writer, commissioned to produce a script for a stage play. The text describes Mr Malik – now of course ‘Dr’ Malik, as a former ‘brilliant student’ of the university. Without access to academic records, we of course have no way of ascertaining whether this is true. But certainly most citizens have been left stunned by other aspects of the citation, which states among other extraordinary claims that as Pakistan faced the brunt of terrorist violence, Rehman Malik “with his leadership qualities and dedication strategised the operational plans and led the war on terror to contain Taliban throughout the country. The terrorists’ network stands broken due to his aggressive management of law-enforcement agencies with singular and extraordinary leadership skills and qualities”, these feats apparently going a long way to boost the morale of the nation. Beyond this, Mr Malik is credited with providing “strategic and operational support to the government of Sindh to combat and contain the miscreants operating in Karachi which helped to root out the menace of anti-social elements and thus maintaining a stable law and order situation in Karachi. It has since been improved considerably and normalcy has retuned in Karachi. He has been pleading the national cause and the unmatched sacrifices of Pakistan in war on terror in UN, Interpol and other international forums very effectively and professionally.” The unknown, and unacclaimed, individual who wrote out the flowery phrases of the document which continues at length along the same vein clearly has a big future ahead of him or her as a fiction writer. But moving beyond the surreal and coming back to reality, it is obvious no one believes what has been stated in this document. Mr Malik is widely regarded as a buffoon, what with his comments about aggrieved girlfriends or wives being behind target killings in Karachi. The doctorate will not change this image. All it really does is highlight the wider issue of academic dishonesty, even at the most prestigious institutions in our land. The fierce debate raging at KU, where 307 members out of the academic staff of 550 have questioned the award and the manner it was made, with the university’s vice chancellor and Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad apparently using his influence to grant the degree without consulting the University Syndicate as required as per the usual protocol. Perhaps Dr Ebad will consider retrieving the degree and the sycophancy which underlies it, following the latest threats of a PPP-MQM fracas following the decision by the Sindh PPP leadership – under pressure from dissenters backing Dr Zulfikar Mirza – to take back a decision to restore the controversial local bodies system to the province, as the MQM had demanded. Of course this is not the lone example of academic controversy surrounding doctorates and other degrees. Senator Babar Awan refused, despite the pages of printed information put out, that his ‘doctorate’ was received from a ‘degree mill’ college in Hawaii, forced to shut down by the US authorities several years before he claimed to have obtained his degree from it by correspondence. The existence of a degree held by the president is equally dubious, since the UK authorities have no information whether the college he says he attended and from where he obtained what he thinks is a BEd degree even exists anywhere on the British Isles. But in many ways all this is irrelevant. Whether or not a person holds a degree is in some ways unimportant; it makes no difference as far as their standing as a legislator goes. And of course the 2009 Supreme Court ruling, followed by legislation to eliminate the essentially undemocratic decision made by a dictator is welcome. What is far more disturbing is the dishonesty inherent in attitudes towards academic degrees – and of course so much else in our lives. This was highlighted by the 2008 drama as the Higher Education Commission declared degree after degree put forward by the legislators to be fake. Perhaps the distortions in our sense of morality were exemplified by the comments made by Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani who sagely remarked at the height of the debate that a “degree was a degree”, whether it was fake or authentic. This of course raises a quite unique philosophical debate, with one tempted to ask Mr Raisani if we have reached a point where distinction between truth and false has become so blurred that it is indistinguishable. Coming back to the fierce controversy raging at KU over the Malik doctorate issue raises new questions about the state of higher learning in our country. It seems degrees and other academic honours have lost their worth. Universities around the world are increasingly reluctant to accept academic qualifications from Pakistan, and PhD theses sometimes contain material that one would expect an eighth grader to produce with ease. This of course is not the fault of the student but of the system that produces such people and determines the limited scope of our educational system. Plagiarism is commonplace with entire paragraphs stolen off the internet. At the Punjab University, even professors have been found guilty of such academic dishonesty. We need to find ways to save our institutions of higher education. The farce permitted at KU must not take place again. In the past our institutions were respected. And they produced scholars, thinkers and scientists and didn’t pandering to political needs. The HEC, the future of which remains dubious, has made some attempt to stem the slide towards disaster. Universities are losing esteem among the people because of the way important decisions are made and the manner in which events take place especially when someone who hardly commands any respect in the eyes of citizens steps down from the academic stage clutching the gilded scrolls of academic excellence.

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