A recent letter from the chairman of Higher Education Commission (HEC) is doing the rounds of offices of vice chancellors and harassment committees of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs), expressing grave concerns over a significant surge in harassment cases, unprofessional attitude, and unbecoming behaviour of faculty and students on and off campus.
The letter directs HEIs to formulate policies or action plans best suited for each HEI — to eradicate workplace harassment and provide a conducive, secure, and healthy work environment for research and debate by students, faculty and staff.
However, the document, ‘Policy on Protection against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions’, effective from July 1, 2020, as quoted in the letter is narrow in scope, gendered in nature and mainly confined to sexual harassment.
Harassment is multidimensional at our universities. It takes place in an organized fashion, and is often protected by an ideological apparatus that provides legitimacy to individuals and groups whose survival is based on profiling, hate and violence.
Traditionally, actors involved in harassing activities are disgruntled students backed by disgruntled faculty and an unaccountable administration that aids to maintain the hegemony of an unscrupulous lot.
Harassment generally refers to situations and conditions where insurmountable pressure is exerted or an intimidating environment is orchestrated for the intended target/targets to seek desired benefits. Tactics and intensity of harassment vary from setting to setting, depending on interests of the bullies.
This generic description of harassment calls for the formulation of a holistic and comprehensive anti-harassment policy on part of HEIs and HEC that take into account situations that affect the victim’s performance or removal from a professional setting. Such a policy must extend beyond sexual harassment, and incorporate a myriad of other forms of harassment, such as caste, creed, sect-based discrimination, minority victimisation, mobbing, and personality clashes that create an environment of fear, hate and retaliation, professional jealousies and abuse of power to establish authority over intended targets.
The document, ‘Policy on Protection against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions’, effective from July 1, 2020, as quoted in the letter is narrow in scope, gendered in nature and mainly confined to sexual harassment.
To curb the menace of harassment, more particularly workplace harassment from HEIs, the HEC must update its policy displayed online on its official website by adopting Pakistan’s Protection Against Harassment of Women At The Workplace (Amended) Act, 2022, which is now applicable to HEIs of Pakistan. The Act is now is much broader in scope and extends to the non-traditional spaces of harassment, like the virtual world.
The cases in the cyber domain should be dealt with in collaboration with relevant agencies, as a vast majority is not educated about digital rights and are highly insensitive towards harassment in non-traditional spaces, like harassment in personal virtual space.
Also, proper education and protection of digital rights of students and employees should be guaranteed and institutional support extended to victims of non-traditional harassment, as the damage in such cases is more psychological than physical.
Students, faculty, staff, and HEI administration should be rigourously trained and sensitized by the concerned authorities about traditional and non-traditional forms of harassment.
To achieve higher standards in education institutes, the HEC should directly deal with cases of harassment — with a zero-tolerance policy, and give exemplary punishments. It should not allow strong in-group affiliations within HEIs to influence the decisions of the varsity committees, resulting in biased, injudicious judgments or minor punishments in serious cases of violations. The perpetuation of such activities is not healthy for an academic or professional environment.