Is Academic Freedom A National Security Threat?

Is Academic Freedom A National Security Threat?

The hybrid regime under which the political system of Pakistan is running is spreading its tentacles to places previously thought to be somehow immune from its reach. While Pakistan never enjoyed academic freedom and that sacred concept of universities as singular spaces where freedom of speech is sacrosanct, there still was a certain leeway in terms of what went on in the premises of the university. It was either considered too far away from public importance or tolerated under some concession for the sake of public legitimacy. That, unfortunately, is not the case now. The hybrid regime has started to see national security threats in universities, academic freedom and the sacred principle of universities as temples of freedom of expression. This is coming after the electronic and print media is totally regimented to spew one kind of frenzied rhetoric and social media is controlled through the principle of information dominance where armies of trolls share the same narrative and rhetoric to bury facts and news under the rubble of propaganda.

The refusal to extend the contract of as eminent an academic as Pervez Hoodbhoy and the recent spate of firing of academics known for their activism from their private universities attests to the fact that universities are the next ‘threat’ to normalize. This began much earlier but it was manifested openly when a colonel visited Gomal University, the alma mater of Manzoor Pasteen, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir – the three main figures of PTM – and reportedly 'disciplined' the faculty, as to how they could possibly allow such insidious thinking amongst their graduates. Soon after, Manzoor Pashteen was banned entry to the premises of his alma mater.

Universities are knowledge-creating spaces. That is to say: the primary role of universities is to create knowledge. To impart knowledge is their secondary role. And in order to create knowledge, all the conventional wisdom, values and beliefs – regardless of whether they are in sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences – have to be challenged. How else can knowledge be created if you accept as unalterable truth all that is known? And for this questioning has to be crowned as the basic right of everyone in a university. Universities must enjoy that distinction as seats of relative free inquiry if they are expected to meet the purpose of their creation.

Iqbal Kaka, father of Mashal Khan, drove the point home after his son was killed in name of blasphemy in a university. Quite aptly, he said that this is an age of science, and so it will be necessary to try and answer the questions of the youth. If we want to progress as a society and transform our social, political and economic conditions, the state and the society have to allow that privilege of free inquiry and absolute right of questioning to universities. Ideas change societies and at universities ideas are born. If we want our universities to reflect our society, then the tall slogans of wishing to witness a transformed society are just futile. Universities must be sanctuaries for critical thinking and limitless questioning, not places where brilliant academics like Junaid Hafeez have to be silenced.

While the state of education in social sciences and humanities at universities in Pakistan is abysmal and practically incapable of generating any knowledge, the academic environment will further suffer in the global tilt toward right-wing ideas. The parties coming to power in this wave of new right-wing populism are inclined towards de-funding the social sciences and humanities, and in doing so, pushing them down the line.

I will leave it to academics from the relevant fields to argue about the level of development and conditions of the social sciences in Pakistan. But I argue that even the much-talked-about need for expertise in engineering and technology is intrinsically linked to freedom of expression and development of critical thinking. It becomes even more important in fields that are so much more abstract compared to engineering and technology.

Despite the cut in funding for higher education and lack of any research, the rhetoric of a ‘knowledge-based’ economy is touted about a great deal. By that it is meant that our graduates and universities will be able to create technologies and services which will generate revenue. Curiously, the thinking is that it can happen in a vacuum where all you need is basic literacy in technology. But technology and engineering sciences also need an epistemological openness and a critical pedagogy where students are taught to critically engage with a given phenomenon, tool or an object of physical and natural law, to innovate and go beyond what is known and applied. To the extent of being a technician, a narrow focus on particularities of a machine, physical structure or environment is enough. But it is never so for research and innovation for the sake of creation of knowledge, and hence a ‘knowledge-based’ economy.

While the need for academic freedom is absolute on its own and much needed to imagine an egalitarian project of social development, the ‘utilitarian’ aspect of it also can’t be overemphasized. By utilitarian aspect I mean the research and development of technology for the sake of service and revenue generation. That also depends on a certain level of mathematical rationality, open questioning and an environment conducive to inquiry. If some make the argument that we need higher education for employment and to compete in the global market or create technology, then there, too, will exist a need for a robust social and political inquiry, which is the realm of social sciences.

Engineering and technical education was separated from the general universities in 1960s, something which I find self-defeating to the purpose and experience of a university education. That narrow focus on engineering and technology in the shape of engineering institutes and later UETs (University of Engineering and Technology) as separate from the broader university experience ossified the engineering students in a closed pedagogy of engineering education. After the much celebrated higher education ‘revolution’ under General Musharraf’s regime, one would have expected things to be better in terms of research output. Despite being the world's sixth most populous country, Pakistan is placed 45th in terms of research output. And this, too, on the basis of the SCOPUS database, which is a much extended repository of research output.

When taken on the strict criteria of index of Impact Factor journals in sciences and social sciences, Pakistan in 2018 had only 12 out of its 371 academic journals in a total list of 12,271 journals. Only 12 journals of Pakistani academia have any real global recognition! To the best of my knowledge, there is no country-wise ranking of SCI/(E) (Science Citation Index/Expanded) papers contributions, which is a stricter criteria for judging the research output in science, technology and engineering, but if there is a survey done, the number of papers by Pakistan-based researchers would be abysmally low. On the other hand there is outpouring of research papers from Pakistan and in 2018 it made a news too by making a 15.9% increase in research output. But that is based in journals which are recognized by HEC or other very low-quality journals in other countries. No self-respecting academic or researcher in any advanced country would publish in the Pakistan-based journals or the others which made the news for Pakistan.

This after the fact that HEC has research-publication based criteria in place for promotion since the late 2000s but each year, through a special notification, the local journals are notified to be acceptable for promotion. While there are many problems in the publication-based model of gauging the research output and quality, that still is the best way available to rank academic and research contribution, especially in STEM. It has to be mentioned that patents, which become the basis of a ‘knowledge-based’ economy, often are offshoots of research. And when the status of research is so abysmal, any talk of that 'knowledge-based' economic model is just daydreaming.

The point of this whole argument is that academic freedoms and well-functioning social science programs are crucial for the development of STEM and high-quality research.

A counter-argument can be made using China, which is a global research leader in STEM and yet academic freedoms are as bad – if not worse – than those in Pakistan. But that has to be seen through the particular state and social structure of China as well as its massive size and investment in higher education. Chinese researchers are part of a global network where they are exposed to different cultures of research and knowledge and despite having limitations on their freedoms at home they hone their critical development skills elsewhere, while the virtually inexhaustible resources available to Chinese researchers offset the general lack of freedoms, at least for research and development in engineering and technology.

This brings us to the question of whether academic freedom is a national security threat or not.

Obviously, the hybrid regime in Pakistan sees it as a threat, but in fact, the lack of academic freedom of expression is the real national security threat. The 64 percent of our 220 million population that is below the age of 30 in Pakistan is both a boon and bane. If this young population is guided in the right way the ‘knowledge-based’ economy can be a real possibility, but if that is not done, then mere university graduates with no real ability to think, innovate and come up with new solutions will simply become redundant graduates. And this is a trend which can already be witnessed.

As a researcher in engineering, I plead with the Powers That Be that if they want us to have any standing in the global technology race, or keep up with trends in research and development, they must not only encourage the social sciences but ensure that there is total academic freedom for all.