We are in the middle of an unnecessary confusion over the PM House and/or National University; a royal guest is arriving in Pakistan’s capital and we are hearing that the ‘premises’ are being refurbished to suit the grandeur of the guest, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
Sometime back, UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan was given a guard of honour at the ‘premises’ and meetings have been held there too. By now, the prime minister of Pakistan must have realised the need for the PM House.
After the 2018 elections, the new prime minister had announced that the government would convert the PM House into Islamabad National University (INU). The first reason given to transform the house into an educational institution was to reduce the gap between the government and the public. A launch conference was held in December 2018, which was attended by international and national academics, policymakers and practitioners. Speaking at the ceremony, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that “all the symbols of colonial mindset will be broken”.
Labelling national buildings like the PM House a symbol of a colonial mindset is not only historically incorrect but also a laughable effort at befooling people for scoring political mileage. Imran Khan should know that in British India, till 1947, it was the ‘viceroy’ who was the executive head, representing the colonial power of the British Crown. The PM House in Islamabad was built by the government of Pakistan out of taxpayers’ money. It is the official residence of the prime minister elected by the people of Pakistan. It is indeed a symbol of democracy.
The second reason given was to reduce expenditure as part of austerity drive. That may certainly be considered a laudable gesture, but distorting the structure and image of a purpose built official building is a confused decision. Most parliamentarians have criticised the establishment of a university in the PM House. They believe that this act is inappropriate since the PM House is the property of the State and of its taxpaying citizens. A single party’s whims cannot be imposed on national symbols. Secondly, state buildings are national heritage and have to be preserved for our next generations as historical monuments.
No feasibility study was undertaken before the conversion. There was no public demand for a new university in such a restricted area where not all citizens and youth can enter. In Islamabad, there already exist more than a dozen public universities. The government universities in Islamabad include Quaid-e-Azam University, Allama Iqbal Open University, International Islamic University, National University of Science and Technology (NUST), National University of Modern Languages (NUML), COMSATS University, Federal Urdu University, PIDE University, and Skill University etc. In addition, there are around 15 private-sector universities or their campuses in Islamabad.
These universities and a number of degree awarding institutions (DAIs) are catering to the under-graduate and post-graduate needs of students. Instead of expanding facilities and improving quality of education in the existing public-sector universities, the government is adding a burden on the national treasury by opening another national university, only to artificially build its political image through cheap propaganda. .
Islamabad National University has been allotted 30 acres of land. We already have Quaid-e-Azam University on 1700 acres. The university has four faculties, 38 departments research institutes, centres and schools, a library and all kinds of facilities that should be available in a good quality university. Faculty members of QAU have taught at international universities. It is clear that due to the limited space in the PM House and security restrictions in reaching classrooms at the hilltop, students of the new Islamabad National University will never be able to enjoy the luxury of an open and spacious campus, which is a hallmark of research universities of high standard.
Instead of setting up new infrastructure and thus spending billions of rupees, why not build the capacity of existing universities to achieve the same objectives? If the prime minister wants to improve the quality of education, then he should focus on improving the service delivery of the existing higher education institutions in the capital city.
There is also the issue of the fact that a single person in power took the decision of converting the PM House into a new university, and none of the relevant state institutions were formally consulted. Parliament, the CDA, the Higher Education Commission, the Ministry of Interior, and the Metropolitan Corporation of Islamabad should have been consulted before taking a final decision. Was a formal permission from the CDA taken? To use the PM House for other purposes amounts to ‘non-conforming use’, which is dealt with under building regulations and is a violation of CDA rules.
Most importantly, no university can be established and recognised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan unless it is supported with the mandatory legal requirement of a ‘charter’. Only parliament has the mandate to approve the charter of a university. It is not clear under what law or authority the prime minister inaugurated ‘Islamabad National University’, without taking approval of its charter from parliament. This is a serious matter to be considered by members of parliament as well as the HEC.
There are many challenges faced by the country. How will the launch of a new university help Pakistanis who want immediate relief? How will it fulfil the dream of 10 million jobs to the youth? My strong suggestion would be to take a ‘good’ U-turn and let the PM House be a working professional space for the current prime minister and future prime ministers.
The writer is a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan.