A few weeks ago, in Lahore, more than 200 students were picked up by the Punjab police following a clash in their university. They were charged under the anti-terrorism laws and their degrees were cancelled. If students being declared terrorists does not qualify as a symptom of a huge crisis in the education sector, let me provide an appropriate context to better explain this event.
Last year, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) notified that the Preston Institute of Management Sciences and Technology (PIMSAT) was not recognised organisation. With a single stroke of the pen, the HEC cancelled the degrees that 27,000 students of the institution now possessed. The years they had spent studying, preparing for exams, making assignments, doing research – not to mention the millions of rupees they had spent – were of no use anymore and 27,000 students could no longer apply for jobs or seek further education.
What happened at PIMSATS was alarming, but it was just one of many such cases. Last year, students of Indus International Institute in Dera Ghazi Khan, Quaid-i-Azam University’s Law Department, Federal Urdu University, Fatima Jinnah Medical University, Imperial College of Business Studies and Bahauddin Zakariya University in Lahore protested because their degrees were either delayed or cancelled while their institutions were denied registration. In nearly all cases, the narrative was a blame-game between the HEC and the universities, which meant that nobody thought that students were the real stakeholders.
Why do we keep seeing a recurrent picture of fake or unauthorised campuses set up in prominent places in the city with thousands of students gaining admission, completing their degrees, and the government only realising after millions of rupees had been spent that the institution was not legitimate? Why must so many students fall prey to an unrecognised or fake institution as a consequence of what one would assume is government oversight? If truth be told, it must be made clear that this is not a crime that the government has been actively trying to counter, for it is a crime that it is party to.
This crisis is a direct consequence of the frenetic privatisation campaign the government initiated under its so-called new economic revolution.
One would expect that the government of a country with a huge proportion of young people (nearly 60 percent) would attempt to strengthen its public sector education. Here, unfortunately, the government continues to privatise key sectors of education in a bid to absolve itself of any responsibility. It is, therefore, natural vacuum created by the government itself would be exploited by profit-driven private entities and cases of fraud would surface regularly.
The government has been the chief architect of the plan of easing private investment in education, freeing itself in the name of public-private partnership, and even awarding private entities the control to sub-campuses of public-sector institutions. Over 4,000 primary schools in the Punjab were given to private entities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a number which the chief minister aims to take to 10,000 before the end of this year. The government has also allowed the rise of an ‘academy mafia’ at the cost of quality assurance of public schools and colleges. Academy and tuition centre lobbies are now so strong that they can resist educational reforms, such as the abolishing of university entrance exams, since they directly affect profits of these groups.
Over 4,000 primary schools in the Punjab were given to private entities and NGOs, a number which the chief minister aims to take to 10,000 before the end of this year
There has been an exponential rise of private educational institutions in the country in recent times. Since the private structure is being promoted as an alternative to the shortcomings of public sector education, its rise results in further deterioration of the public sector. More than a 100 dejected people burnt their degrees outside the Karachi Press Club last year when, after more than four years of written and screening tests, psychological examinations and interviews, the Supreme Court (SC) decided to cancel the appointments of 227 candidates of the Sindh Public Service Commission. This was done because the SC realised that the chairman of the commission was not eligible to hold office. Why the candidates had to suffer, the Supreme Court never clarified.
Thousands of students were also shocked and dismayed when the Punjab government did not declare the result of their Punjab Public Service Commission tests and did not conduct new tests for vacant posts. All of this happened because the PPSC had no chairman. More than a 1,000 seats for lecturers across the Punjab remained vacant and the new chairman was appointed only the last month. As usual, no reasons for the delay were provided.
The government’s bid to evade responsibility by establishing the private sector as an alternative to public sector failings also decreases its own power in holding the private sector accountable.
The private schools are raising fees without any fear of consequence and are charging for summer sessions by blatantly disregarding government notices. A university in Lahore recently imposed a fine of Rs1,000 on things as absurd as ‘carrying juice in front of the library building’ or ‘eating a samosa in front of the library building’ and ‘eating fries in the back lawn.’ These universities charge more than around Rs20,000 for a single course. This means that a student failing in a couple of courses in a semester is very profitable for the university. It is the reason why the university actively finds ways to fail students. When repeating courses becomes a profitable business, it is unlikely that the administration in a university will leave room for compassion even where it makes sense.
Fake institutions do not just drop out of the sky. They are the direct by-products of the way the government has privatised education. They are established by people who possess direct or indirect influence in the government. Many such campuses have been established at the behest of a governmental authority who is a direct beneficiary of this scam. When students find out the truth after wasting time and money, the government feigns ignorance and a war of blame begins between the HEC and the campuses.
How would one explain that the Ministry for Intra-Provincial Affairs awarded more than 200 Afghan students admission at the Imperial College for Business Studies, and after a few years, the HEC declared that the campuses had been set up illegally and are unrecognised?
There is another myth we must bust here. After the protests that took place at the fake campuses, a lot of us believe that this was the students’ fault. Why did they get admission in such institutions? The answer is simple: these students wanted an opportunity to study! We live in a country with 166 universities for more than 150 million young people. Those who think it is the students’ fault must show us how every university, public and private included, can accommodate around 120,000 students each to make sure everyone gets in recognised campuses.
Ahsan Iqbal, our former planning and development minister, claimed only last year that students were the vanguard of the forthcoming economic revolution in Pakistan. In the same year, 27,000 students were robbed of years of physical and emotional labour and the minister didn’t seem to care.
The minister was right in stating that the students are the vanguard. I must, however, point out that when the government effectively hands over education to the private sector, the destitute, disenfranchised, and subjugated students cannot become the vanguard of the revolution that the government envisages, but of a revolution of their own making.