Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Plagiarism is but one Symptom

 Plagiarism continues to rear its head in our universities and the response is the same “dump on our professors.” Perhaps it is a part of our larger disdain for learning. But of that later!
Every so often there is a gleeful story that x number of professors caught plagiarizing and they have been suspended. The gossip on this lasts a few hours and subsides. 
Whether or not an investigation is properly conducted we will never know. Could it be that in academia, plagiarism charges have become what blasphemy is in the rest of the country? Could this be how rivalries for promotion are now settled? No one has looked into this and we are all content with the charge of plagiarism being used and some careers ruined.
Now I am not saying there is no plagiarism. Of course there is. And some prominent cases have been uncovered convincingly where papers of Nobel Laureates have been blindly copied. This incident speaks well to the level of academic development in Pakistan where academics even lack the ability to plagiarize well.  
Is plagiarism the only form of academic dishonesty?
We hear of this software that detects plagiarism.  Yet I have not heard of how well it has been tested? Like all other software, it must have some margin of error.  Who is using it how? Can it be abused? Of course our media is too busy chasing political gossip and arranging mock politician battles to investigate such issues. But then why should anchors rise above the energy and competence level of the rest of society.
Software can only detect similarities of text but not other forms of intellectual dishonesty. For example, what happens when original ideas are lifted without attribution is that not a crime or is it only similarity of writing. I have seen so many writings on Pakistan both by local authors as well as foreign including large donor agencies where original ideas are taken without attribution. Take any donor report and look at the references and you will see quite easily how they have missed out on ideas that have been hammered out by our thinkers. Another question worth asking then is, do our professors learn from the donors who feel they are above norms of intellectual property rights?  
Similarly what about data-manipulation, which several governments have used to show the success of their economic policy? Similarly there is an industry out there that is always making up statistics to make a biased case for funds they seek. For example, there is pressure by funding agencies to show poverty and other social indicators are always worsening.
Should we rule out imitation?
Imitation is the way humanity learns. Let us be sure that we are not discouraging some imitation.  Well known cases of authors and musicians copying each other with minor variations has created great work. Remixing in music is a delightful and creative industry. Let us not confuse creative imitation with plagiarism. 
To begin with all students learn by summarizing masters and finding little twists to show originality. A certain amount of imitation is necessary to learning. I hope that these plagiarism witch-hunts are not scaring away students and even professors from creative mimicry.
When I was Vice Chancellor of PIDE, I had asked all students to just go to the Nobel website and review the work of all Nobel laureates in Economics and write essays on ideas of each of these individuals but do so in their own words and storytelling style. The idea was would then publics a cheap volume to be distributed in all our colleges and universities. To me such work is a part of pedagogy even though it may not be path breaking and creative. 
While we are all focused on plagiarism, we must also ensure that it is not a witch- hunt of academics. We must all ask the question, why is it such an epidemic in our universities? Are the faculty members alone guilty? Or is it the designers of the system who are also to blame.
HEC’s Mechanical Approach
Hoodbhoy was among the first to point out the faults in incentive structure set up by the HEC.  The mechanical approach based on counting degrees, years in service and number of publications has focused academics on HECs indicators of quantitative success taking them away from inquiry, thought and research. 
Many of us (most of all Hoodbhoy) have written on how HEC needs to rethink its paradigm but the bureaucracy of HEC is deaf to such pleas even if they emanate from prominent Pakistani thinkers. Donors such as the World Bank conduct HEC evaluations without listening to such opinion. Of course donors are academically honest!!!?!
The biggest failure of HEC is that it has failed to create an academic atmosphere. The easy way has been playing the mechanical numbers game and blaming it all on lack of financing. But then to be fair HEC never contended to be developing academia. They were always in a numbers game to generate thousands of universities, millions of PhDs, and billions of papers regardless of quality. 
A good professor is not a mere publishing machine. In the rest of the world the quality of publication matters too. How peers perceive research and how seminal it has been is also a big consideration in determining its merit.  Academics who shake a paradigm are held in high esteem no matter how many publications they have, Case in point is John Nash of  ’A Beautiful Mind’. On HEC criteria, he would never have been appointed a professor in the Pakistani University system. 
A university is not just a place where students agglomerate for a brief interaction with average teachers.  So far HEC has focused on numbers without direction. The approach has been to build more and more universities, expand enrolment, and push for publications and as many degrees as possible. What was forgotten in all this is academic quest and atmosphere, which we have failed to build in all our universities. 
Where are the Professors?
At the heart of the academic quest is the professor. To HEC she is just an employee to be filled by advertisement and mechanical criteria. The professor is a motivated inquirer, researcher, teacher, motivator, inspirer—someone to be cherished and not a machine to produce degrees or papers.  Universities are not mere administrative units to be managed in the same way as factories with clear productivity goals a la Taylor. Instead they are built around professors who cluster students in inspirational inquiry and a quest for knowledge.
When I was at the Planning Commission, I always asked universities that came for funding, ‘how many professors do you have?’ The answer always dismayed me. Most universities had less than a handful of professors often none of an international quality. There was no telling these people that international universities have 20-30 professors of the best quality in one department while they do nto even have that many in most of their universities. They could not see that these universities competed for professors and did not wait for them to show up on an advertisement to be interviewed by a deputy secretary. 
Yet the lust for funding was making them expand their campuses across the country. We are the only country where universities have more campuses than professors. Is this model not giving students a substandard education? Is this not just as bad as plagiarism? Or worse?
When I interviewed some of these students, I was distressed to see the product of this university system. The education being imparted was dated and of doubtful quality. Their employment possibilities were seriously affected. Further education prospects of these students are seriously impaired by this system.
There is a now a human capital emergency in the country, as our system is not producing what is required for global competition. But who is listening? This is why I find the focus only on plagiarism somewhat misplaced. We need to reform the whole system of higher education and not just pick on a few professors.
I tried to explain to the HEC that we need more professors, that a university is a collection of clusters of name-brand professors in departments. Clusters of well-known professors inspire, set standards, engage in peer review, and set up academic debates. Combined these activities are the engine which stamps out research, learning and societal and student knowledge. Such clusters police quality of research and debate, weeding out plagiarism as a routine. 
A university well stocked with professors and academic freedom will be a hubbub of activity full of classes, seminars, conferences, experiments, projects, debates and many other forms of creativity.  Such universities work around the clock not like HEC universities that are barren by the afternoon. 
Is there a lack of Funding or Management?
HECs refrain is the lack of funding. Their mission to educate is empowering. By now a sense of entitlement prevails among these self-appointed education missionaries.  When I questioned them on quality, the answer, I got was that is the next stage. So when will it come. ‘Oh maybe 30 -40 years from now’. What a great model. Give me all the funding I want. For results wait decades after I am gone.  I wish we could all have jobs like that. 
HEC told me in many open meetings that cut defense and give us all the money. A notion, which showed me how naïve and unacademic these people were. A country at war needs defense funding. Countries at war have even closed universities down. But the sense of entitlement allows them this naivety.
I pointed out that universities should be in a position to raise resources especially when there has been a state gift of huge tracts of land.  In any case universities cater to a richer class than schools hence some of the burden could be shared by students. They also had an alumni base that is a source of funding the world over.  I suggested that all universities prepare a business plan and share it with the Planning Commission. Of course this business plan will assume that the government will continue to subsidize education and hence allow universities to run at a loss. But it will be a great management tool to see how finances could be managed and delineating key objectives and see how they could be achieved. 
To my surprise there was an uproar against this proposal. Academics did not understand this argument, which was quite revealing.  To date no such plans have been prepared. Meanwhile demands for funds keep increasing both in size and volume.
Note most of our universities have huge tracts of valuable city center land. Can they not learn from Stanford, which owns a shopping mall to derive income out of? Some universities own hotels, commercial buildings! None of them give up their land, which by law is protected. But on a partnership basis they gain income from these properties. And over time these developed properties return to the university.  Why can we not do this in Pakistan? 
Political fiefdoms with no accountability
But then the VC often runs the university in Pakistan like a fiefdom. VCs in turn are selected on a political basis by a process that is deeply flawed. No academic is involved in this process, which is designed to rule out the best that the country has to offer.
Advertisements for 6 or more vice chancellors are given at one time by the secretary education. A short list is prepared by the education department for the search committee to conduct one interview to decide on VC. Only in Pakistan is this called a search process and an interview committee called a search committee.
So-called search committees are appointed on a permanent basis and comprise of government favorites often of those who know nothing of education. Search committees are supposed to be university, position and purpose specific and do active search not just an interview. Surely the HEC should know the difference between a search and an interview committee. Clearly they do not!
Reforming HEC
There is an urgent need to reform the HEC system if we are to build human capital or build any world-class university. Plagiarism is a symptom of a poorly designed university system that places no value on academics or research.
Like all other Pakistani government organizations HEC too has built a moat around itself protecting itself from any reform. HEC administration has also learnt how to use student power to their own ends and resist any effort to reform and improve the system. I was surprised how they used the student body to resist the move to decentralize higher education and even to interfere with HEC staffing. 
But like the mullah, HEC is on a divinely ordained mission placing it above any questioning. They want an inordinate share of the pie with no responsibility. Like the Mullah they claim their performance measurement cannot be held in this lifetime.