Take matters into your hands: A self-help guide for university students

In my seven years as a lecturer, I have come across a sea of students who seemed to have no faith in their future.

That is ironic because the entire purpose behind higher education is to help create smarter, more confident people who are better prepared for the real world.

This begs the question: how effective are these universities in preparing their students for the said world?

I just finished talking to numerous students about how their universities are faring in this regard; students from UET Taxila, NUST, Hamdard University Karachi, Islamia University Bahawalpur which we’ll call Tier 1 (ranking based on budget, equipment, professors); and students from Iqra University, Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, PMAS, and SZABIST Islamabad, which we’ll call Tier 2.

Before we go into examples, let us talk about where universities are at fault. It is important to understand that this critique applies to the average university, not the upper echelons of academic excellence in Pakistan.

Also read: 6 areas where Pakistani BBA and MBA degrees fall short

Profit-churning institutes the biggest problem
Employers demand a certain skill-set from their employees. As far as an employer is concerned, applicants can acquire these skills, however they want. With specialised curricula, experts, state-of-the-art equipment and the latest knowledge on just about any field, universities became a popular place to acquire the said skills.

Once these universities transferred knowledge onto their pupil, they handed them a degree/certificate attesting to the latter. Applicants would then brandish these degrees and employers would welcome them with open arms.

It was a good arrangement.

Then, at some point in the last few decades, universities turned from beacons of knowledge to profit machines. It was at this point that thousands of universities opened up all over Pakistan, letting in just about anyone who could afford the increasingly outrageous fees; all the while cutting costs at the expense of crucial things like worthy professors, latest technology, and infrastructure.

Three-room universities started opening up on top of shops, and the students might as well have become large bags with dollar signs on them, because there was no career counseling, and most importantly, not enough jobs in the market.

This created a bottleneck; hundreds of thousands of students going in, only a handful getting work in their field.

Also read: Pakistani universities climbing up international rankings: HEC chief

Among students, hopelessness abounds aplenty
Students from Tier 1 universities are trained to believe that if they work hard enough, they will have everything they ever wanted. However, students of Tier 2 universities had grown to believe that the market won’t be happy to see them and they will need higher education before they find acceptance.

Interestingly, from a market perspective, there aren’t any obvious gaps between Tier 1 and Tier 2’s employment rates, but there are more Tier 2 students enrolled in Master’s programs than Tier 1.

Some students did their homework before enrolling, some were forced into their institutes either through family pressure to just get a degree (go figure) or because their preferred institute did not accept them.

Universities like PMAS and FJWU usually start their semesters a month after regular enrollment because they are happy to pick up students who could not enroll at other places.

So you can imagine what that does to their confidence from the outset.

This here is the crux of the dilemma: students are of the opinion that they were deliberately misled about their degree’s worth: the prospectus featured random market statistics, exciting promises, and an unbelievably flattering image of the campus.

Also read: Misjudging universities

But when inside, students are told that once they’re done with this degree, it’s all downhill. Due to this, students start nursing impractical expectations from the market and these hopes are dashed sooner or later, leading to demotivated and disappointed graduates.

My subjects concurred that somewhere after the 5th semester, they go from excited students to people who are just figuring out how to finish their courses with the bare minimum of effort.

Going from people who want to acquire a skill to people who are just figuring out how to beat the system.

Most teachers are of little to no help
Ideally speaking, teachers are hired specifically to help these students acquire certain skill, as well as be better professionals, ideally.

Unfortunately, the ratio of passionate teachers to people who are in it just to make some money, is imbalanced on the wrong side.

Some are teaching at so many places that the process is almost mechanical to them, and they can’t even tell students apart.

Some students want to take their problems to people who look like they have life figured out. It is at this point that some teachers provide trite cliches like “work hard, you’ll have everything”, some outright refuse to help, while some do what they can to guide these students, both professionally and academically.

So these were the problems, multiple and widespread. However, in the interest of fairness, we have solutions – solutions that fall on to individuals and are not at all tier-dependent. These solutions are just as helpful for students of LUMS as they for students of some new hut they decided to call a university.

Take matters into your own hands
As we’ve established, there is no point in hoping that your university will do right by you, because if they haven’t already, best make other arrangements. This does not mean you should quit, you still need that degree.

First off, the internet has everything you are supposed to learn, or think you should have learned by now.

Take time out of your life to sit online and catch up on Lynda.com, KhanAcademy, Coursera, etc. There are thousands of sites dedicated to imparting wisdom and you might end up learning more than your own teachers.

Reach out however you can
Talk to your teachers to see if they can introduce you to someone in the industry. Not all teachers are very well connected, but you don’t need CEOs of companies either. Just try to get in touch with some professional.

If teachers fail you, ask your friends and family to help network. Once connected, you discuss the possibility of taking some small project off their hands.

Every individual in a company has some minuscule task they can easily outsource – you want those tasks. To them it is minuscule, to you it might as well be gold, because by the time you graduate, these assignments will help you put a bunch of industry-related projects on your CV.

Also read: 1984: The murder of Pakistan’s student unions

Lower your standards now, raise them later
During your summer breaks and if you can work out a schedule during classes, take whatever internship you can find in whatever building for whatever position that remotely sounds like it has something to do with your degree.

It might sound demeaning, it might feel useless, but this is the best time for you to rack up credentials. Everyone has to pay their dues, if you start paying them sooner, you can be a touch pickier after you have graduated (just a smidge).

Whenever jobs for fresh graduates are announced, they will definitely pick graduates with experience over others. This gives you options as soon as you graduate, sometimes even before.

Become an entrepreneur
Becoming a problem-solver is the only way to go about things in the long run. You might be able to get by off others’ solutions (barely passing, applying for jobs endlessly until someone calls), but if you tap into a drive to do something for yourself, that’s when possibilities present themselves.

The best part of entrepreneurship is that every problem is an opportunity.

Entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make money off a project, it’s about getting something started. So if you find that you have the system figured out by your last semester, help out your juniors. Charge them a fee if you want. If you have learned tools/tricks/trades, share them with everyone who wants it.

Also read: The sorry state of research at our universities and how to fix it

I am happy to share that these solutions will definitely work. These are not distant dreams; students do these things every semester and find themselves living better lives. I have seen students create opportunities for themselves in ways one did not think possible.

The misfortune remains that all of these solutions would be unnecessary if universities helped students through this themselves. I have seen students who have learned almost alien technologies out of sheer willpower. I have seen many other examples in PMAS, Hamdard University Islamabad, and NUST.

Like I said, it works no matter where you are

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