Pakistanis in US urge education reform back home

Salal Humair remembers well the day a lecturer at a Pakistani university chastised him for asking too many questions during an undergraduate engineering class, telling him "it was a sign of evil."

Now, Dr. Humair and several other concerned Pakistani intellectuals living in the Boston area are working to revamp Pakistan's higher education. Last weekend, the alliance of friends – whose simple dinner conversations on Pakistan's educational system a few years ago have evolved into an informal think tank called The Boston Group – came closer than ever to achieving their goal.

At the two-day summit at Boston University, members of the group swapped ideas with Pakistan's key education policymakers on how to reshape the country's higher education. Of major concern was why, despite the technology boom of the past decade, Pakistan had failed to churn out mass numbers of information-technology professionals as its neighbor India has. They also homed in on how to reverse a "brain drain" that deprives Pakistan of many of its promising students.

"Money is certainly needed to improve Pakistan's higher education," said the minister of science and technology, Atta-ur-Rahman, during a keynote speech. "But it's not everything. In the car of education reform, the engine is quality faculty."

Other Pakistani officials hailed from the country's major universities and the national task force on higher education, which was set up in 2000 by President Pervez Musharraf.

During lunch, task-force member Ishrat Husain, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, said the meetings gave him substantive ideas for encouraging reform. "I've been finding out about ways to implement a formal work-study program as an incentive for professors to learn more about their fields ... and in turn better engage students."

Currently, there is little money or recognition given to quality academic research, Humair says, adding that professors more often advance through connections than through merit. Humair, who recently earned a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says a work-study program would help Pakistan develop a world-class university.

The Boston Group recently caught the attention of President Musharraf (his Boston-area son is a member). That recognition spurred the task force in February to request comments on the first draft of a report it was formulating. In response, The Boston Group churned out a 57-page opus, advocating that universities be separated from the government and that schools be more equitable across social divides.

"We're just a few people who have gotten together and said we want to do something," Humair said. "We didn't really think anyone would actually read the paper and take action."

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