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October 10, 2018

A ticking time bomb


October 10, 2018

On Monday, September 25, hundreds of students at the University of Sargodha (Lahore campus) blocked the Canal Road to protest non-issuance of their degrees. While the protests disrupted the city’s traffic for a number of hours, the injustice meted out to students has brought their entire lives to a standstill. What is worse is that these wounds are being inflicted by the very institutions that are supposed to nurture these young minds and make them confident and productive citizens.

The University of Sargodha had allowed a private group to open its sub-campus in the city of Lahore as part of the public-private partnerships encouraged in education since the early 2000s. A dispute emerged between the main campus and the sub-campus over money owed by the latter to the former. As a response, the main campus refused to issue degrees to students belonging to the sub-campus until clearance of all pending dues (by the sub-campus). This response has placed the lives of these students in jeopardy; many of them are unable to find a place in the job market or pursue further studies without their hard-earned degrees. In other words, it is the students who are paying the price of a financial battle that was not of their own making.

The case of the University of Sargodha’s sub-campus is a specific one, but it signifies a larger structural crisis within the higher education system. The policy of encouraging public-private investments in education has led to the proliferation of sub-campuses and degree colleges to meet the excess demand for education. While policymakers continue to show blind faith in the efficacy of private enterprise, the quality of many of these educational institutions has remained abysmally low despite the exorbitant fees charged to the students. Yet, a web of nepotism, corruption and negligence on the part of officials from universities and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) allowed for the existence and exponential growth of institutions providing below par education. The problem has been compounded by erratic decision-making by the HEC, which periodically launches crackdowns on campuses by ‘blacklisting’ their departments.

Two years ago, the HEC blacklisted 79 departments, a number that has now increased to 168 in Punjab alone. But the whimsical manner in which licences are handed out to institutions and then revoked (often under pressure from the HEC’s foreign donors) puts the lives of hundreds of thousands of students in total disarray. Those who have completed their degrees are simply told that their efforts will receive no official recognition, nor are those currently studying at these departments facilitated with any alternative path towards the completion of their ongoing degrees. This abrupt freezing of time for thousands of young students leaves public confrontation on the streets as the only viable option to highlight their grievances.

The HEC’s official response that they issue regular ‘parents alert’ against blacklisted departments is partly false and partly inadequate. As explained above, the false bit is that many of these institutions were blacklisted after they had already been functional for a number of years, a decision that retroactively affected thousands of students without a viable alternative. Second, these institutions continue to advertise and recruit aggressively, and considering how they target students from rural backgrounds or small towns, it is easy to see why ‘alerts’ by the HEC may not reach families desperately seeking education. But the most bizarre aspect of this response was that it had no suggestion on how to meet the excess demand for education among the population.

Thousands of students from humble backgrounds today believe that higher education can give them and their families a chance at social mobility. Rather than planning how this expectation from our young citizens will be met, the HEC is taking pride in clamping down on existing institutions. The fight against ‘fake’ institutions cannot be won without providing for quality alternatives, just like a fight against quacks is meaningless without the provision of an adequate health infrastructure. No amount of chest-thumping on the part of the HEC will suffice unless a workable plan is presented for meeting this surplus demand, and a viable option is given to those caught in the vortex of an unregulated education system.

The challenges facing the youth today do not end here. Even if quality education is provided to those seeking it (a herculean task, given the limited interest and resources dedicated to education), there will always be a question of where these students will find adequate employment opportunities. Many of these students face the predicament of often being overqualified for the jobs done by their parents, and under-qualified for the better paying jobs on the market. In my own experience as a teacher, I find that the sense of being paralysed, with all the mix of desperation, shame, and anger it brings, is perhaps the most widespread feeling among large sections of the youth. The problem is exacerbated for female students, since they have to carry the added burden of familial honour and the intrusive gaze of the public.

We are then presented with the accumulation of a number of contradictions that cannot be treated without acknowledging how they all are interconnected. The crisis of excess demand cannot be met without the provision of an adequate number of educational institutions. In turn, their quality cannot be improved without structural reforms and increased investments in the education sector. And to give these students job prospects, we need a transformation from a speculative and militaristic economy to one that puts the provision of decent employment as its core value. In other words, the ‘youth bulge’ that experts talk about presents a challenge not only to institutions directly engaging with young people, but to our entire socio-economic structure and the ideology that underpins it. We are dealing with a contradictory totality that can only be grasped in a ‘dialectical’ fashion, to borrow a term from Hegel.

But those at the helm of affairs in our country do not have time for such complications. Instead of regulating the quality of education, they have resorted to aggressively regulating the minds and bodies of students on campuses. The latest example of this authoritarian strategy was witnessed in the severe crackdown against students protesting against a 350 percent fee hike at the University of Peshawar. The gory scenes of the police action on students, with five students hospitalised and many others arrested, showed the complicity of the state, and university administrations, when it comes to suppressing the demands of students. This particular incident is also indicative of the possible response of the government if citizens choose to protest against the rapid and unbearable price hike it is currently imposing at the behest of the IMF.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing news last week was from Faisalabad, where a student committed suicide in front of the gates of his academic institution allegedly due to mistreatment at the hands of the administration. This incident is symptomatic of the deep sense of shame and hurt felt by a large number of students who feel unanchored and vulnerable in a chaotic, punishing world. The act of suicide pushes this accumulated anger turn inwards due to feelings of helplessness and isolation. But this anger among the youth can also turn outwards, as it did during the Arab Spring, resulting in unprecedented socio-political upheavals that no amount of violence can ever suppress.

We should remember that a youth robbed off its future is a ticking time bomb for any society. That alone should give us, and those in power, enough reason to be very worried.

The writer is an assistant professor at FC College, Lahore and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.

Email: [email protected]

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