The road to education

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The road to education, both literally and figuratively, is dilapidated. Last week, I spent my days at a summer college that dates back to the days of Dr Abdus Salam. This prestigious summer school that used to be in the picturesque resort of Nathiagali is now conducted at the National Centre for Physics (NCP) in Islamabad due to security concerns. While the scenery around the NCP is majestic and the greenery of the mountains surrounding Islamabad is breathtaking, the road leading to this major centre for research is an absolute disaster. In my travels around the world, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and even in countries that are far below Pakistan in their economic status and outlook, I have never seen or experienced any road with a similar state of disrepair and neglect, let alone in the capital city. The condition of the road is unimaginably horrendous. Driving on it was a challenge for any driver, who had to not only manoeuvre the vehicle to avoid permanent damage to the tyres, but also save the car from wandering animals, both domesticated and wild, roaming with complete freedom and adding to the woes of the road.

This is the only road going to this premier national institute that houses nearly two dozen international conferences and scholarly events every year and attracts hundreds of students and scholars, both from within Pakistan and abroad. The summer college that I was lecturing at was inaugurated by the president of the country, but he chose to fly on a helicopter from his residence less than five miles away instead of taking the road taken by the students, staff and faculty every day. I wish that he had chosen to take the road instead of flying in.

But it should not take the president coming by road to improve the state of that road leading to the institution (something that did not happen anyway). The state of many public campuses in terms of infrastructure is not all that dissimilar. My students at this summer institute were outstanding. They were curious, eager and enthusiastic about learning. Yet, they were also bothered by a deep sense of neglect in the infrastructure around the institution. When I tried to ask, the officials concerned deferred it to the institution. It is unreasonable to expect institutions to foot the bill to create decent roads. The roads leading to educational institutions are neither the responsibility, nor the property, of the institutions, but they do affect student enthusiasm, moods and energy. Research shows that the environment of the institution, both physical and social, makes a direct impact on the ability to learn, engage and interact. The psychological impact of the physical environment is real, substantial and long-term. Environments that lack cleanliness, structural integrity and a level of peace not only hinder student learning, but also negatively affect student outcomes. Research shows that students in such environments are less likely to engage in rich debate, eager to learn or be tolerant of other views and opinions.

On the other hand, places that are open, welcoming and allow for freedom of movement and ideas, create opportunities for learning, inquiry and ultimately, long-term impact. The security situation has already converted our campuses to mini-fortresses, with further neglect we will take our institutions further away from their ability to reach their full potential. With limited opportunities for quality education in the public sector, and fewer new opportunities being created, the last thing we need is to lose what we already have, as a result of neglect and indifference.

Original news :