“We have embraced a ‘no-borders’ agenda by incentivizing cross-disciplinary work”.
Dr. Arshad Ahmad is the Vice Chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences. Prior to his current role, Dr. Arshad Ahmad served as Vice Provost, Teaching and Learning, and Director of the MacPherson Institute at McMaster University in Canada. He is also Chair of Teaching and Learning Canada, former President of Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and former Vice President of International Consortium of Educational Developers.
Dr. Ahmad completed his MBA and later PhD in Educational Psychology at McGill University, won a lifetime 3M National Teaching Fellowship in 1992 and was a professor of finance at Concordia and McMaster Universities. His research interests are in student evaluations of teaching, approaches to teaching, teaching philosophies and student partnerships.
Following are the edited excerpts of a recent conversation BR Research had with Dr. Ahmad:
BR Research: What has been LUMS strategy to address the challenges posed to the education system by COVID-19? And how do you think universities should adapt to the pandemic?
Arshad Ahmad: COVID-19 has prompted a major reset. The big picture in Pakistan puts education as the fastest growth industry here as well as in our neighbouring countries where the global education industry will flourish and have its highest impact. In this new dawn, higher education needs to draw its inspiration from local, indigenous and our cultural heritage with deep roots in higher learning. We have lots of young universities but also a rich heritage of languages and culture that contribute to the diversity we must draw to reimagine education in the global south.
One aspect where we can have a huge impact is to transform one-way instructional practices based on transmission of disconnected and obsolete facts, memorised by disengaged students. COVID-19 amplified the need to put learning first by focusing on what students do and what students think. By shifting to a learner-centred paradigm, higher education must compel students to actively engage with their university as partners, co-designers, and co-creators of their own learning experiences. At LUMS, we embody this mind-set institutionally in what we call the Triple P, which stand for our Pedagogical Partnership Programme.
BRR: What have been the main challenges that you have faced during the last one year?
AA: First and foremost, we focused on confronting the grand challenge of providing health and safety to our students and relief to the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Similarly, as classroom learning came to a halt, we accelerated a changed agenda to work from home, teach online, produce, and disseminate knowledge.
Since last March, when the government locked down all educational institutions in Pakistan, the key question was when and how we would fully open the campus again. We experimented with partial opening, kept several blended and hybrid learning options open and engaged faculty throughout in pedagogical training. LUMS faculty have been exceptional day in and day out, coming together to overcome budgetary constraints, innovate and lead by example.
Our students were equally remarkable as they not only come from big cities but also from 160 villages, towns such as Ghotki, Tando Adam, Turbat, Bahawalnagar, Taxila, Hunza and Swat, that literally represents the mosaic that is Pakistan. They transformed themselves into self-directed learners from home; confronted hardships and distress through persistent hard work; and engaged in issues that matter. Students were vocal about their desire to return to campus, reminding us that a residential campus experience truly differentiates us, and we must continue to invest in it.
We also learned the importance of constant communication through a variety of channels. These have included regular communiques to faculty, students, staff and alumni, town halls and other virtual meetings and over 60 LUMS Live webcasts. These webcasts were a runaway success as we connected with new audiences in hundreds and thousands on a range of national and international issues. We also learned how to host a world-class convocation, which took place last June led by Malala Yousafzai. During the fall, we also launched two weeks of quality orientation, full of engaging online sessions that students could sample at their own time and pace.
BRR: Psychological and mental health issues have become very evident during the pandemic. How have you been addressing such challenges on campus?
AA: COVID-19 has restricted movement and amplified isolation from social structures. Students, faculty, and staff have lost loved ones, and experienced psychological distress in ways never experienced before. This, on top of academic pressures to complete assignments and meet deadlines in makeshift spaces with constant interruptions have been additional challenges. As mentioned, by putting health and safety first, we have, a) hired a Director of Campus Health and Safety to look at all aspects of wellness b) invested to expand counselling services, nurses in the medical centre and c) provided related peer-student support groups.
BRR: In today’s competitive academic world, what differentiate SDSB from other business schools?
AA: Our business school is prioritising the development of people and ideas to better society and business. We do not transfer knowledge about business fundamentals that are generic in the abstract. Instead, we contextualise business thinking such that our students are equipped to develop solutions to complexities that emerge rather than ones they have seen before. Ultimately, their focus is on advancing societal change and welfare rather than just economic growth that is investor focused.
B-Schools-rankings institutionalise homogenous approaches that score on rankings. We instead address contextual needs and prioritise a wider conception of business thinking that ultimately gains favour within rankings. Recent globalised rankings evidence the effectiveness of this approach.
BRR: LUMS launched innovative specialised MS business programmes this year in addition to the three in Fall 2020 — MS in Business and Public Policy, Technology Management and Entrepreneurship, and Healthcare Management and Innovation; what has been the reason behind the decision and how are they different from what was offered at the business School earlier?
AA: Business leadership today requires one to stay on top of the rapidly changing business landscape. To keep up with global developments, the Suleman Dawood School of Business (SDSB) at LUMS, this fall is launching, MS Financial Management, MS Supply Chain and Retail Management, MS Accounting and Analytics as well as an Exec version of MS Health Management and Innovation.
These programmes deviate from our established generalist MBA and EMBA programmes in that they address sectoral needs in the region from government/NGO and civil society enterprises; to digitalising enterprises and start-ups; to the healthcare sector for the new ongoing MS degrees. And those that launch in the fall focus on Pakistan and the region in relation to supply chains that are becoming more complex and retail spaces that face competition and novel marketing/branding challenges to accounting expertise that is being transformed via digital systems and innovations to the financial sector which is increasingly complex with the added dimension of Islamic financial instruments.
Aside from the programmes being focused on new areas, the MS structure itself stresses spending two terms on instruction and one undertaking a project that is applications-based and culminates in a project write-up.
All new MS programmes incorporate a data analytics course to stress that the forms of data are now diversified, and big data analysis enables learning from data that arises from digital technologies, which resultantly produce more data that trigger further decision-making information of relevance. Therefore, every graduate programme recognises that learning begets learning which is essential for organisational growth.
Our pedagogy stresses not only case-based learning but also blended learning where students spend time engaging with technologies and online platforms, which is coupled with in-person sessions.
BRR: In a completely changed world today, what are you plans for LUMS in the coming years?
AA: Change is already happening. The shift to online teaching has forced teachers to change their mind-sets. They are reimagining their roles to engage students as partners in research and teaching. They are paying attention to indigenizing curriculum and the challenge for the next five years is to break disciplinary boundaries.
We have embraced a “no borders” agenda by incentivizing cross-disciplinary work through merit, promotion, and tenure. We have also prioritized over a dozen centres to address the grand challenges of our time that are interconnected, universal and highly complex. These centres are focussing on Water Informatics, National Incubation, Energy Institute, Big Data and Cloud Computing, Policy, Chinese Legal Studies, Executive Development, Continuing Education, Gender Initiative, and the Learning Institute. These areas are not only national issues but lie at the very heart of the academic enterprise. We ask our colleagues in sister universities to join us in making these changes as the new imperative for global higher education.