A talk with Wasif Rizvi, Founding President of Habib University.

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The objective of liberal arts education is to provide students with a broad exposure to various disciplines to refine an individual’s thought process.

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The Habib Core is built around five major paradigms: Striving for excellence; appreciating aesthetics; nurturing passion; respecting others; and serving the community.

Synergyzer: Give us some details about your professional self.

Wasif Rizvi: I am the Founding President of Habib University, a project of the Habib conglomerate, one of the oldest businesses in the country. I studied Public Policy and International Education from Harvard University. My interest has always been in creating institutions and learning spaces. Before joining Habib University, I served as GM – Aga Khan Education Services Pakistan where I was in charge of conceptualizing, designing and implementing educational development programs in schools. The first institute that I helped set up was in India called Shikshantar, which is an institute focused on rethinking the foundations of education and development in South Asia. I also helped found the Institute for Development Studies and Practices in Quetta.

Synergyzer: What are Liberal Arts?

Wasif: Liberal arts education generally refers to psychology, history, philosophy, literature and linguistic studies, art and music history, as well as science and mathematics.

The core of liberal arts comes from ancient Greece and is built on ‘trivium’ which is logic, rhetoric and grammar whose purpose was to allow an individual to come to terms with reality and learn to identify things, understand the mechanics of thought to decipher factual knowledge, and gain the ability to express the acquired knowledge. Trivium was later enhanced by including ‘quadrivium’ – arithmetic, geometry, music & astronomy; which allowed learning of pure numbers, numbers in space, numbers in time and numbers in space cum time, respectively.

In ancient societies, the objective behind teaching liberal arts was to cultivate free thinking. They were essential studies to develop citizens who could be productive, while taking active part in civic life, i.e. participate in public discourses, defend themselves in public courts as well as serve in juries and military.

In modern times, the objective of liberal arts education is to provide students with a broad exposure to various disciplines to refine an individual’s thought process. A liberal arts curriculum includes subjects on history, science, philosophy etc.; even music. You may be required to do creative work even if you don’t intend on a career in creative arts. The objective is to better equip you as an individual and as a member of society.

Synergyzer: Why the need to teach liberal arts in Pakistan specifically?

Wasif: There is a dire need in Pakistan for people to know about and understand our history and historical culture, and own up to it for the right reasons. This helps foster a sense of belonging, without which people are essentially rootless. It is also important to conduct a little bit of philosophical reflection, otherwise there are religious and cultural identity conflicts which deter people from reflecting on things critically or perform as productive citizens in any walk of life.

Synergyzer: Pakistan ranks a very low 127 out of 144 for higher education and related training. Looking from the perspective of a liberal arts institute and the difference it can make, what are some of the reasons in your opinion?

 Wasif: We need to look at our country’s past for this analysis. In the 1960’s, a martial law decree was passed that changed the nature of Pakistan’s universities. The decree stated that all education will be categorized under Sciences, which included Engineering and Medicine; and the rest will all be categorized as General Education. This resulted in splitting the population into three categories; doctors, engineers and the primary work force. The more competent individuals ended up studying science, and the rest went into arts. This resulted in a population that was limited in their approach and outlook towards life.

It bred the mentality that obtaining a Bachelor’s degree is a specialization in itself, whereas around the world, Bachelor’s is only a foundation that paves your path to higher education. Due to this, the qualitative outcome in Pakistan is that every other individual out of college wants to hold a position of responsibility, in other words wants to ‘become something’ right after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree, where in actuality they still have a long way to go to be held accountable for strategic matters.

On the other hand, the quantitative outcome is that there is hardly any research being done; no collaborative or effective discourses on history or historical analysis being carried out, hardly any focus on producing art that is inspiring, uplifting, or that sets aesthetic standards of beauty and intricacy. Most of what we are producing does not go beyond a clichéd representation of yesteryear art in the subcontinent. Similar is the case with music and literature; with hardly any comprehensive efforts being carried out at developing our language or literature.

All these factors contribute to Pakistan’s poor rankings in higher education and deciding to counter these led to the conceptualization of Habib University and the creation of the Habib Core Curriculum for its Liberal Arts program.

Synergyzer: What is the Habib Core Curriculum? What philosophy is it based around and how does it impact students?

Wasif: The Habib Core Curriculum is a series of eleven interdisciplinary courses that are based on seven ‘Forms of Thought’ that derive their source from the Greek trivium and quadrivium philosophies. These include

  1. Historical and Social Thought, which helps the students understand and contextualize cultures and society.
  2. Philosophical Thought, that allows students to think impartially, systematically, comprehensively with an aim to understand complex problems with profundity.
  3. Language and Expression, which allows for the development of eloquence and fluency in the communication of ideas.
  4. Creative Practice, which fosters a creative way of thinking.
  5. Formal Reasoning that teaches students to think and act logically.
  6. Quantitative Reasoning that helps develop the capability to handle and operationalize large amounts of data.
  7. Natural Scientific Method and Analysis that teaches students how to evaluate information and recognize limitations in claims.

Students who will apply themselves thoroughly to the Habib Core will develop uniquely attuned faculties of reasoning, logic, deduction, critical analysis and through their actions, emulate the philosophy of the Habib Core which is built around five major paradigms: Striving for excellence; appreciating aesthetics; nurturing passion; respecting others; and serving the community.

Synergyzer: How have you bifurcated the university’s academics?

Wasif: Habib University is divided into two main schools, the School of Arts Humanities and Social science (AHSS) and the School of Science and Engineering (SSE).

AHSS offers BSc (Hon.) in Social Development & Policy and BA (Hon.) in Communication Studies & Design, while SSE offers BS in Electrical Engineering and BS in Computer Science.

Synergyzer: What are the academic backgrounds of the students presently enrolled in the programs?

Wasif: Since ours is a Bachelor’s degree program, we take students from all academic disciplines being practiced presently in Pakistan. To give you an idea – 50% of our students are from the Cambridge system, 25% from the intermediate board, 14% from the Aga Khan Board of Education and the rest comprise of students from IB (International Baccalaureate) Education System, American High School and from the Board of Technical Education. Habib University is an equal opportunity institution and anyone who can clear our admission requirements can enroll in their program of choice.

Supportive of the fact that Habib University is a non profit institution, we have a very generous financial aid and scholarship program. This is a entirely need based – the only criteria we have put in place is the student’s ability to pass our admission procedures. At present approximately 92% of the enrolled students are on some form of financial aid.

We encourage students who have a philosophical approach, and are able to display traits of brilliance, curiosity, and the ability to think out of the box. We look for students who feel the need to self-actualize and are psychologically prepared to do the hard work for this during their degree program. The university will thus create a trajectory for such individuals to be extraordinary successful in life. It is one of our goals to create leaders of their age.

Synergyzer: How do you identify potential students?

Wasif: We have a variety of channels through which we conduct our recruitment. We meet with prospective students in their schools, invite them to our campus, interact with them through social media, they write to us etc.

Recently, we have developed a special program called TOPIS (Talent Optimization, Identification and Support), since we realized certain candidates were having problems in applying with us. The program specifically helps with creating equal opportunity for all applicants like helping fill out forms etc.

Synergyzer: Do you intend to develop any Postgraduate programs within the university?

Wasif: We will continue being an undergraduate university; developing and equipping our program and giving our students the right foundation. Integration of Masters and PHD programs presents a whole different kind of challenge, one that we are not at this point willing to take up. We are satisfied with what we have aimed to accomplish.

Synergyzer: What challenges is Habib University facing?

Wasif: Developing a critical mass of intellectuals required to set up an institute of higher learning is our foremost challenge. The intellectual resources required for achieving something like Habib University are not easy to come by in Pakistan as most of them left the country for higher academic pursuits and are now settled abroad. We have been lucky enough to be one of those to be able to start a movement to bring them back to Pakistan; the thinkers, the historians, the philosophers. The second challenge we face is making the high schoolers realize the value of the education they will be receiving at this institution, and what liberal arts is all about. This involves a lot of unlearning and re-learning on the part of the students to re-educate themselves about some of the core concepts that I have mentioned earlier.

Synergyzer: What future do you see for the Habib University graduates?

Wasif: The kind of knowledge and education we impart transforms our students into future leaders; effective communicators, creative problem solvers, people who would take ownership of their mistakes and go on to find solutions; whether they wish to continue their education or wish for placement in the job market.

Having said this, we have a special division in our career placement department that looks after graduate school placement. We expect that more than half of our graduating students will be positioned in graduate schools with scholarships and grants. Also, we are confident that most of our students will get into the world’s best graduate programs.

Synergy: How do you intend on bridging the gap from campus to corporate?

Wasif: We will be forming an Industrial Board soon in which each of our four programs will have top people from relevant industries acting as advisors. Also, we will make sure that we keep our syllabus robust that takes direct input from the market to ensure our graduates are effective and relevant when they graduate and enter their professional lives.

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