A Pakistani Ivy University in the Making?
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
A TV program sometime back seemed to spotlight the media’s ire. The language was scathing and the comments unsavory about a country that has remained steadfast in its support for the US. The program focused on the emotional outbursts of a diehard segment of Pakistan society and the fulminations of misguided pacifists known for their opposition to the country’s nuclear program. It conveniently ignored the nation’s march in different fields and the progressive nature of Pakistan society.
Yet, there was one positive comment that seemed to have unwittingly slipped from the host’s lashing tongue: Some of the world’s best schools are in Pakistan! As the compliment was paid - grudgingly or ungrudgingly - the camera panned across a classroom full of young boys and girls. Their uniforms looked familiar. Was it a Beaconhouse School chapter? I was not sure. Yet the compliment - ‘some of the world’s best schools are in Pakistan’ - reechoed in my ears, and justifiably so. My own son had studied at the PECHS Chapter of Beaconhouse. He was later to win a full university scholarship and excel in studies on migration to the US, thanks to the excellent school education he had received in Pakistan.
Blissfully, the Beaconhouse School System has seen a marked growth in recent years. Its branches dot the country’s landscape and their number is fast multiplying. Founded by Mrs Nasreen Kasuri and Mian Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, the System is the largest private network of schools with more than 40,000 students. This wholesome trend testifies to the fact that private schools today play a complementary, nay, catalytic role in strengthening the education sector in Pakistan. They have a chain reaction effect and in this enterprise Beaconhouse’s example stands out, thanks to the painstaking strivings of Mrs Kasuri who has been at the helm of the School System since its inception.
A write-up in Pakistan Link that year furnished a fresh proof of Beaconhouse’s sustained growth: “With the largest private network of schools in Asia, it was only a matter of time before the Beaconhouse School System was ready to take the quantum leap into the higher education sector. The Beaconhouse National University Foundation (BNUF) has been recently established with the express purpose of setting up the Beaconhouse National University at Lahore.”
The Foundation and its Boards of Trustees and Directors comprise members whose commitment to education and idealism are exemplary: Dr Moeen Qureshi (former Prime Minister of Pakistan), Dr Malik M. Hasan (Chairman and CEO, Healthnet and Founder Malik & Seeme Hasan School of Business - CSU- in the US), Lord Robert Maclennan (Member, House of Lords, United Kingdom), Dr Parvez Hassan (Founder Member, Lahore University of Management Sciences - LUMS), Mr. Kasim Kasuri (Founder and CE of Beaconhouse -Informatics), Mr. Shamim S. Khan (Principal, Aitchison College, Lahore), Mr Shahid Hafiz Kardar (eminent economist and former Finance Minister, Govt. of Punjab), and Mrs Nasreen Kasuri (Founder and CE Beaconhouse School Systems).
There were more heart-warming details: “Some live on traditions, we create them. What do we offer? Exciting programs in School of Visual Arts, School of Liberal Arts, School of Social Sciences, School of Architecture and Design, School of Information and Technology, and School of Media and Communication”.
In the United States, the Hasan Family Foundation is responsible for the promotion and publicity of the Lahore-based Beaconhouse National University. Dr Malik M. Hasan and Mrs Seeme Gull Khan Hasan of the Foundation make an enterprising couple: together the two form the vanguard of any effort aimed at promoting the Pakistani community in the US or the cause of Pakistan at Capitol Hill. They rubbed shoulders with President Bush and the First Lady and are an asset to Pakistan and the Pakistan-American community. The Malik and Seeme Hasan School of Business (CSU) in Colorado is a living testimony to the couple’s innate stirring to promote education. Thanks to Mrs Hasan’s initiative, I found myself seated in Mrs Kasuri’s Lahore office to learn more about the Beaconhouse National University.
“Pakistani expatriates are a target community,” she said. Young Pakistani boys and girls living in the US or the UK can study at the University and gain familiarity with the Pakistani culture and traditions during their stay in Lahore. They can have an “in-depth look at the cultural diversity of this part of the world. We will have special courses for them. They could return to the US, the UK, or wherever they come from after spending a few semesters at the Beaconhouse National University. I see no problem in the transfer of credits earned during their stay at the BNU,” she confidently claims. The University would also be an ideal place for students hailing from the SAARC countries, Mrs Kasuri opines.
The interview is interrupted by a call from a Sindh branch of the Beaconhouse. The principal has been threatened by the parents of a student who has not done well in a test. Mrs Kasuri promptly assures her of the school’s support in a soft but firm tone. “The school is behind you,” she says. There is no display of affectations, no admonitory grunts, no high-sounding sermons. I realize what makes the Beaconhouse such a singularly important institution in the country.
A number of accomplished academics share Mrs Kasuri’s zest to establish the BNU. Professor Saleema Hashmi, who has been associated with the National College of Arts for 30 years, is one of them. She furnishes her views with rare perspicacity: BNU offers Pakistani Americans the opportunity “to discover something they know second-hand to know as first-hand, and to tap into the rich cultural, emotional and intellectual reservoirs of the country.
“We are hoping they earn credits in the US. Once the American universities have a look at the courses offered by BNU, I see no problem in the transfer of credits. Speaking for my own schools, this could happen immediately.” BNU is “a new vision, a fine vision that encourages an inter-disciplinary approach which is lacking in Pakistan.
“There is no liberal arts university in the country. Subjects are offered but students cannot cross-register. BNU will offer students the opportunity to study different subjects which are not available in other universities. Kuch khwab hae. Itnae saal fanoon lateefa maen guzara,” she says. The present period is the most exciting one in the history of Pakistan arts - younger artists are making a name in the international world!
She talks of a “long, painful journey in gathering a young dynamic faculty.” Daughter of a distinguished Pakistani, late Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mrs Hashmi is hopeful that the “finest artists will be associated with our strivings.”
Another devoted lieutenant of Mrs Kasuri is Mrs Navid Shahzad who is demonstrably inspired by the Beaconhouse founder. “What is distinctive about Mrs Kasuri is that she instinctively grasps the crux of the issue and does not hesitate to entrust someone with responsibility. I was given a complete carte blanche and never treated as an employee.” Navid, who taught poetry and drama at the Punjab University for thirty years, joined Mrs Kasuri’s group in 2001. She prepared the feasibility report, planned eight schools which will be operational in three phases: the “first six are up and running,” she says.
“We are in the process of making history,” Navid exuberantly claims. The BNU is patterned on the American system of education. It would facilitate inter-disciplinary studies. The faculty members would also comprise scholars from abroad. “We are trying to attract Fullbright scholars to serve as faculty members.” BNU will be an “innovative, progressive, and dynamic university with a strong base in liberal arts.”
“Pehli martaba Pakistan maen aek degree offer ho rahi hae. Theater, TV aur film maen yeh aapni naueat ki pehli degree hae,” she declares in chaste Urdu. Navid speaks English with enviable perfection but chooses to talk in Urdu. Lahore is the cultural center of Pakistan. No one can deny that the people of the Punjab have played an all-important role in the farogh (promotion) of Urdu.
“Adab ham sari zabanon maen parhatae hain. Comparative Literature ka mazmoon ham introduce kar rahaen haen. ‘Literature and the visual narrative’ pehli martaba MA kae liyae offer kiya ja raha hae.” Another subject ‘Literature and the dramatic performance’ will be taught by Madeeha Gauhar and Zia Mohyeddin. Post-colonial literature will also be under spotlight. In 2004, the Department of Women Studies (Gender Studies in US) will make its debut.
The University courses will have special attraction for students from the Gulf, Malaysia, and SAARC countries. Pakistanis who find it difficult to make it to the US in the post-9/11 period would also find the BNU curriculum of singular appeal. As for Pakistani Americans, the University possesses a special attraction. “BNU offers expatriate children the opportunity to retrace their roots. They should explore their roots.”
Even mainstream American students could be tempted to study at BNU. “As a super power, Americans are isolated and insulated from the rest of the world. They must see our true face which they can do only if they come here. Who will teach them calligraphy? Lahore is one of the oldest civilizations of the world. The American has a curious mind. Let him discover what we have to offer. We are looking to forge bridges. Good for both. Every American is not a bully. America must send its ambassadors out. We also need to tell the world that we are not monsters,” observes Navid.
Dr Isa Daudpota, an IT expert who belongs to a distinguished family of educationists of Sindh and is an outstanding academic in his own right, speaks candidly about the BNU. “The effort is to impart quality education over and above what is offered by other universities. The closest to us is LUMS but we offer a more diverse menu. We are offering subjects which are not taught in different universities.
“The way to teach would be different. There will be more open discussions. Indeed, it would be discussion-based education giving a student the chance to design his/her course. BNU will be closer to an American Arts University.”
The University will offer training in ‘Films and Media,’ a subject that has suddenly come to attain primacy in educational institutions in recent years with the launching of several TV channels. With the Beaconhouse National University graduates entering the scene a wholesome change is likely to take place. Better presentations, better scripts, better talk shows, better techniques, and better producers. A more professional outfit altogether.
The BNU is a non-profit organization. The Kasuri family is represented as a minority on its Board, an exceptional arrangement, that speaks volumes of its sincerity and commitment to promote healthy traditions and speedy growth. It is for Pakistanis - both within and without - to benefit from the University which has the making of a great institution.
If PINSTECH (Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology) could win accolades and be described as ‘best of both the worlds’ by the TIME magazine, thanks to the vision of the late Dr I.H. Usmani, Chairman, PAEC, would it be too much to expect that the BNU would emerge as the equivalent of an Ivy institution - if not today, ten years hence? If some of the best schools of the world are in Pakistan, why shouldn’t we strive to establish some of the world’s best universities in the country?
(This article was written several years ago and is being repeated because of its topicality.) - firstname.lastname@example.org