For many years now, every government has allocated limited budget to the education sector of Pakistan. A basic life necessity like education is shackled to the heavy weight of negligence. It was never a priority of successive governments as well as the present one. Sadly, the current government - which was majorly elected under the support of youth - further reduced the budget of education by 20.5 per cent in the fiscal year 2019-20.
In such circumstances, what future of Pakistan’s education sector can we foresee given the poor literacy rate in the country, where the youth has so much potential and ability to rule? In the wake of International Day of Education, celebrated every year on 24th January, this week You! takes a look at the current situation of Pakistan’s education scene apparent in the recent Student Solidarity March that happened across the country...
With a 35-year-old rage and hearts full of disappointment, Pakistan’s youth called out the system of injustice and came out in solidarity to hold protest last year on 29th November. According to AlJazeera, it ‘began in 1984, when, unnerved by the growing student resistance to his regime, military dictator Zia-ul-Haq banned student unions across the country. In more than 30 years since then, this ban has effectively prohibited political activity on campuses and created a culture of silence’.
Reportedly, there were at least 50 locations where the students were protesting for their basic and legit demands. They had 10 demands to put forward which included:
1. Education based on class system should be abolished.
2. The ban on student union should be lifted.
3. The recent increase in fees should be withdrawn and there would be no increase for the next five years.
4. The intervention of security forces in educational institutions must be stopped immediately and politically motivated cases on students should be withdrawn and such students must be released immediately.
5. Committees should be constituted under the laws of sexual harassment in every educational institution. And such committees should ensure active representation of students and women. Furthermore, judiciary should inquire the sexual harassment faced by students in University of Balochistan.
6. The privatisation of education and educational institutions should be stopped.
7. Basic facilities like proper hostels, water and shuttle services should be provided to students in all educational institutions.
8. Educational institutions destroyed during military operation should be constructed on an emergency basis.
9. All national languages should be made compulsory at primary level and lastly.
10. 5 per cent of the total GDP should be allocated for education.
According to local newspapers, the students further demanded that religious thuggery should be eliminated from campuses and that peaceful, healthy and democratic environments be created across campuses nationwide. The students maintain that they want to be a part of the decision making process that decides their academic futures. Moreover, among the causes that the Student Solidarity March is rallying for is the universities forcing students to sign affidavits against participation in political activities on the campus. Also, a more controversial demand of the march organisers is against the involvement of security forces in campus activities, including the curbs on free speech witnessed across universities.
The march saw the participation of rights groups like Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement (HKM), the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union, Kissan Raabita Committee, Liberal Education Foundation along with other students and workers groups.
2018’s Student Solidarity March was the first collective rally organised in years, with students gathering in Lahore and Islamabad among eight major cities. While the rally attracted a decent participation of students, in 2019 a significantly higher turnout was observed.
In the wake of the march, police in Lahore filed criminal charges against some of the activists who supported it and arbitrarily detained one of the protesters: Alamgir Wazir, the nephew of Ali Wazir, a parliamentarian and leader of the non-violent Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which campaigns for an end to human rights violations against Pakistan’s Pashtuns. Among those named in the police report are Ammar Ali Jan, a former assistant professor at Punjab University who was asked to resign from his post in 2018 on the grounds that he was encouraging his students to become too vocal, and Iqbal Lala, the father of Mashal Khan, a 25-year-old student who was lynched by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017 after being falsely accused of blasphemy.
Ammar Ali Jan, who is also a member of HKM and was one of the organisers of the Student Solidarity March, shed some light on the issue and talked about his support during the student marches. “The campaign began as a response to the multiple crises faced by students on campuses. We have managed to raise some of the issues in public discourse. Yet the key problem is that students do not have adequate representation on campuses. This is why demand of student unions was central,” elaborates Ammar. The scribe further inquired about how successful these marches are and how much the demands have been fulfilled on which Ammar Ali Jan comments, “We have managed to make these demands acceptable in public discussions. For example, the Federal Government supported demand for unions. On the other hand, Sindh Governement has moved a bill for restoring unions. It is a step in the right direction.”
According to Ammar, we need an education system that represents interests of students and teachers. We need more funding and we need to encourage questioning by students and teachers. Education system can’t work without critical thinking. When asked how supportive the teachers were during the march, he says, “It was heartening to see teachers stand with students. New alliances are being made that will deepen the movement for quality and accessible education.”
Ammar Ali Jan also informed about the struggles they faced while organising the marches. The struggles still have their impact which they are tackling with currently. “Despite government claiming to support students, sedition charges have been levelled against organisers including myself. Alamgir Wazir is in jail. This hypocrisy shows we need to do a lot more work before freedom becomes a reality on our campuses.
In Pakistan, there are nearly 25 active student organisations; 15 of them are in Karachi alone. Over time, these organisations have taken to the streets for their particular demands, but these individual and fragmented movements don’t often yield desired results. To make these demonstrations more effective, these organisations have been united under the banner of the ‘Students Action Committee’ and carried out the rallies with several students, activists and supporters.
According to organiser Progressive Student Federation (PRSF), and member of Awami Workers Party (AWP) Minhaj ul Arifeen, the aim of the marches was well thought out. “Youth is the stepping stone of Pakistan - a country which has a huge youth bulge. Unfortunately, nobody knows its worth. There is a kind of disorientation among Pakistan’s youth and none of the mainstream political forces are able to deal with it effectively. In order to fill the current political vacuum, I believe one possible solution to cater to our youth is to liberate student unions and bring student leaders in the forefront who belong to middle or working class and are educated and can run the country. We decided to hold the march everywhere as these marches have a huge impact on federal level and in large urban sectors.”
While elaborating the successful outcomes of the march, Minhaj puts, “It’s going quite well as we are seeing that our demands are being fulfilled already in most of the regions including Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab. However, KP is yet to implement our recommendations. After the 18th Amendment all provinces have the right to take decisions especially in this matter. The first and foremost aim was to give voice to students as the equal stakeholders within the power of a university; we are glad that is also being considered.”
While commenting on their propositions to make Pakistan’s education system better, Minhaj suggests, “The main reason of a dysfunctional education system in Pakistan is that students’ advice is not a priority. They are not asked about their suggestions when it comes to the betterment of our education sector. Our education level is so low that our doctors and engineers drive taxis when they go abroad. They have to study all over again or give many exams to come to their level to get good jobs. And, even if they get jobs, they face a lot of discrimination at workplace. Our curriculum has a lot hatred which students take with them for the rest of their lives. We teach children a distorted regional and Islamic history; even the science books have lots of irrelevant stuff which comes off with no use in professional fields. With such level of education, students become frustrated and tuned to aggression and incidents like Mashal Khan and Nimrita Chandani happen. We saw five on campus death of students in two months while sitting in the federal capital. With the need of consolidating all the forces, we thought that it would be useful if we gather all students and reinstate the student unions by the help of which students would find out the solution to their problems.”
Minhaj also pointed out the issue of students living in the peripheries. “It is sad that there is no educational structure present for the students living in the peripheries. Even if it is present, it can’t cater the needs of all students and even if it does, the quality of education is so bad that such students can’t compete on merit basis when they come to metropolitan cities. Every place has a different education level and there is a total imbalance. We think that until students are not the member of syndicate and are not a part of any decision making process, we cannot improve the education system in Pakistan.”
While there is a compulsion by universities refraining students from participating in politics, most people would also assume that politics is a mere distraction for young students who should be focused on their careers. In this regard, Minhaj contradicts, “The march was organised in a way that it wouldn’t affect students’ academic schedule and ensure maximum presence of students. Secondly, I would like to add that student unions do not affect studies. In fact, the criteria of contesting in such elections include sound academics, a good social standing in the institute and a strong character. Participation in extracurricular activities is also a big part of the criteria. So, people usually have the perception that student politics promotes hooliganism, which is not the case. These unions have their own code of conduct. They encourage students to maintain a balance between student life and attaining justice to turn them into better citizens. You have to take part in constructive politics and work hard for studies at the same time.”