Despite facing hindrances from all the stakeholders of higher education, the federal government is culminating the autonomy of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) through proposed amendments in HEC Ordinance 2002.
As per reliable sources, the cabinet committee for lawmaking has sought suggestions from the federal ministry of law and parliamentary affairs. After this, these suggestions would be presented before the cabinet and the National Assembly so that they may be transformed into law.
Sources said that the vice-chancellors committee and association of private universities of Pakistan have already opposed this step by terming it as an aim to limit the autonomy of HEC.
According to the proposed amendment, a suggestion has been presented to end the representation of provinces in HEC’s high-level body after which its members will reduce to 10 from 18 and the federal government will have the authority to take decisions regarding higher education in provinces.
In April 2021, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government made two amendments to the HEC ordinance with the aim to remove the HEC chairman on the desire of the government and to minimize the tenure of the chairman from four to two years. At that time, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party showed resistance and demanded the restoration of the HEC Ordinance 2002.
Read also: Students Protest Fee Hikes In Most Literate District Of Balochistan
Gul Bibi, a mother of a newly admitted student at the University of Turbat, belongs to a poverty-stricken family. She is a widow and earns fifteen to twenty thousand rupees a month, with her Balochi embroidery work. Maybe a little more when she works over time. She has a son studying in Quetta, and another in Turbat University. The youngest of her three sons has also secured admissions in Turbat University. But the new wave of increment in the fee structure of the varsity, ranging from 30 to 80 percent – varying from department to department – is compelling Gul Bibi to rethink sending her youngest son to university.
For the last few days, some students have organized outside the main gate of University of Turbat and are protesting through a sit-in against the new fee structure announced by the varsity. The students claim that the 30 to 80 percent fees hikes are against the Balochistan Universities Act, 2022. For last several days that they are sitting, they have received “no satisfactory response” from the varsity administration.
“If fees are increased to what the university wants them to be, I am unable to send my son to study in the university,” Gul Bibi says, still pondering how she would look into the eyes of her youngest son. “I don’t think I have an answer for him if he asks what his sin is. I have sent all my other sons to university and if he is unable to go, then what can I even say to him?” she says with tearful eyes and a query if she could not really send her child to a university.
As per a recent report issued after the 2017 Census and published in 2022, the Makran division of Balochistan is the 8th most literate district across Pakistan, with a 60.05% literacy rate, while the Kech district topped Balochistan with a combined 62.66% literacy rate. Out of the total literate individuals, 56.66% are women and the 43% are men. This rise has widely been attributed to the inauguration of the University of Turbat back in 2012, where students of the Makran division enthusiastically took an interest in pursuing a higher education.
“This rise was observed because of two reasons: one, because a university was available at our doorsteps, and two, because of low fees,” says Hammal Baloch, a student protesting in the sit-in outside the varsity’s gate in Turbat. He notes that this sudden rise was to ‘downgrade’ the literacy rate and deprive the youth of opportunities to pursue higher education.
Earlier when the Turbat University did not exist, students in Makran who had the means turned to Quetta or outside Balochistan for higher education, while rest the quit and either looked for a government job or began their private business. The University of Turbat’s creation was an opportunity for everyone in the division to continue their dream of pursuing a higher education.
“Earlier, when the fees were lower, I thought I would manage it by sewing clothes over time,” Gul Bibi tells me. She is now worried because, in her calculations, her work may not earn her the amount needed to pay her son’s fees. “It is not an increase of one or two thousand rupees, it is more than ten thousand – including the charges of transportation,” she says with grief.
As noted, the varsity charged Rs 250 per semester which was included in the semester fees challan. But this time, the varsity has increased the fees amount from the voucher and asked the students to pay another Rs 4,000 for transportation separately, if the students are from main Turbat city, and an additional Rs 5000 for students residing outside Turbat.
Professor at the University of Balochistan, Hamid Ali Baloch has also expressed concern about the recent fees hike of the varsity and says that it is ‘out of the legal context’ to increase fees to this extent. He says, that he was part of the Planning for Finance team of the Balochistan University which met after every two months to plan for expenses, including constructions and fees etc, and they were legally bound to only increase fees by a maximum of 10 percent if needed. “If the varsity says that they are in financial crisis, then they ought to recognize that the whole country is in the midst of a financial crisis, and it does not mean that we should pass the financial burdens on to students,” Baloch says.
“When Peshawar University was in a financial crisis, they wrote a letter to the Higher Education Commission, Pakistan and decreased the salaries of the faculty,” Hammal Baloch informs. “The same was the case with Islamia University Bahawalpur where, after writing to HEC, the varsity administration froze a month’s salary of the varsity’s employees and requested them to pay more grants,” he says, adding that the University of Turbat was not even interested in such measures, despite clear precedents set by universities across Pakistan.
“Is being poor a sin?” Gul Bibi questions the authorities. She did not choose poverty, but now that she lives with little means, she has few good options. “I want nothing but my children’s education,” she said. She fears that the fee hike may deprive her son of higher education completely.
“If we do not stand firmly against the administration, they will adopt even harsher measures in times to come and lose their sense of boundaries,” Hammal says, foreseeing a rise in ‘unauthorised’ behavior on part of the administration towards the students. He says that this rise is likely to disincentivize students from poorer backgrounds to turn to university education. “The damage will persist for generations to come. We do not want chronic illiteracy and the injustices that come with it,” he says, adding that they were committed towards their sit-in and would go to every extent to get the fees reduced.
The varsity administration, on the other hand, was hesitant to comment. The administration has been advocating for their point of view and posting ‘false’ comparisons of the fee structure with other universities of Balochistan, including University of Balochistan (UoB), Balochistan University of Information, Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS), and Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences (LUAWMS).
The Students Alliance Turbat, which is leading the organized sit-in outside the main gate of the varsity, says that they reject the allegations of the University of Turbat and are ready to negotiate on every demand. “The administration seems heedless and does not want to commit to sitting down seriously to discuss the matters through dialogue,” they say.