By Ahmad Fraz Khan via Dawn

AS THE Punjab government prepares to establish an agriculture university in the southern part of the province (probably Multan), it maybe the time to get back to the basics – the Land Grant System, which gives an institution the financial autonomy and integrates three most essential services – education, research and extension – in the sector.

Punjab had been running its agriculture universities on this system, as the world has been doing for the last 150 years, till 1961. Then, for reasons best known to the policymakers, it broke the system down to separate education from research and extension services – creating parallel and independent streams.

Since then, these three essential services have lost sense of purpose. Academia lost touch with the field, and went entirely theoretical.

Research was reduced to four walls of the educational institutions and became project-based (money making toll rather than problem solving) instead of being practical and need-based.

People have been cut off from research and academia and became increasingly ignorant of what they were supposed to extend to the field. This is precisely where these services stand now and also define the chaos in the sector; where the right hand does not know what the left is doing.

They also provide the context in which the South Punjab is going to have a university.

Ever since the issue of new province in southern Punjab gained political currency, every party, including the PML-N (the ruling party in Punjab), is pandering to the voters from the area. In the same streak, the PML-N now wants it to have an agriculture university. But the crucial point is what would be the fate of this university few years down the line.

Will it also regularly run out of finance, as other recently created educational institutions in the area have? It has already created three veterinary colleges in the area. There is hardly any faculty in them as there is no money. One of them was supposed to be upgraded to a university, but could not be done in the last few years for financial reasons.

One of these colleges is headed by a professor of physics. Precisely for this reason, no one is ready to recognise their degree at the national level. The success or failure of the new initiative would largely depend on the model on which it is established.

So, the Punjab government has to think beyond traditional lines if it wants to serve the southerners educationally and desires to be politically remembered. Sustainability should thus be the most crucial factor at the planning stage – and, unfortunately, this is exactly where the politicians fail. They plan for short-term political gains and then tend to forget the project.

Most of the nations in the world adopted the Land Grant System to beat this habit of their politicians. Pakistan did the same till the early 60s.

To lend credence to the system, people are still nostalgic about the better standards of education and institutions in the 50s.

Under this system, an agriculture university is granted a moderate chunk of land (2,000 acres, as has been the case with the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad), as endowment, which it develops, sows and generates income from – even by commercial usage. Together with fee from students, the university runs its finances independently and does not have to run from pillar to post every year for money.

To make the current state of affairs even worse, the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, has the land but cannot use it except for “educational purposes” as defined by the DCO – because the land is never mutated in the name of university. The Punjab government still holds the title and the right to determine its usage. So, the land is already with the university, but it cannot generate income from it.

The Punjab government suffers both ways: it has spared land (resource base) but still has to give money every year, and take the flake for failure. In the absence of income from land, the university has to run after the bureaucracy for money, which seldom exceeds 50 per cent of approved grant. So, mendicancy is the way of life for those who run the university.

Apart from the sustainability factor, the Land Grant System allows the universities to link education to the field, allowing problem-based learning; education becomes applied instead of isolated as has been the case. Since the universities have huge infrastructure and are better equipped to institutionalise different streams, everyone – society, community – benefits. The students learn actual farming, where they are given a piece of land to high value crops and intensive farming to create “model lands and guidelines” for others to follow.

Under the system, every teacher does 30 per cent extension work and every extension officer gets back to the institution to teach 30 per cent of his service time.

Both report their experiments to the researcher, who creates new knowledge that is then taken back to the field. The system thus creates a pool of human resource that has integrated knowledge of field, research and extension and capacity to lead agriculture in the competitive world of free markets.

The mandate of the (East) Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, which was established in 1962, around the same period when Pakistan was winding up the system, under the Land Grant System could be guiding principles for any new effort.

Its website says: “It is committed to continue improving productivity and profitability of agriculture and allied sectors through providing quality education in the areas of agriculture, veterinary science, agricultural engineering and allied fields.

To undertake basic applied and adaptive research to seek appropriate solutions to emerging problems and develop relevant technologies to improve socio-economic conditions of the farming community.

To develop effective mechanism for the transfer of technology to farmers and agricultural organisations through different extension programmes with a view to improving agricultural productivity and economic conditions of rural population and to develop appropriate technology for supporting the growth of agro-based industries.”

Fortunately, the Punjab government already has a big infrastructure in Multan, with two big institutions (cotton and mango research) apart from a reasonable agriculture set-up in the Bahaudin-Zakariya University. All of them already have reasonable chunk of lands with them.

The government has to only integrate their efforts and resources and pool in additional ones to create one integrated model for this ecological zone.

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