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March 21, 2020

The case for academic freedom


March 21, 2020

My recent termination from the country’s premiere public-sector institute, Government College University (GCU) Lahore, underscores an important issue that Pakistan’s education sector is facing: an erosion of academic freedom.

Ever since the PTI government has assumed power, the space for critical thinking, debate and dissent has begun to disappear from our educational institutions, and the fundamental idea of the university as a critical site for ‘reasoning’ and nurturing young minds is gradually being undermined.

I served in GCU Lahore’s Political Science department from November 2015 to March 2020. My job status was contractual, subject to renewal every six months. Coming from Gilgit, a peripheral area of the country, with a dream to build a career in higher education, I decided to give up other options in favour of teaching at the aforementioned institute. At a time when graduates are obsessed with the CSS examination and acquiring a privileged job, my decision to turn towards teaching was something that shocked my friends and family. In my four years of teaching on campus, I never failed to deliver my duties and performed my job with commitment and passion despite being overworked and underpaid.

However, at the end of February 2020, the administration of GCU decided not to renew my contract. I wasn’t provided a written notice, nor any letter stating the reasons for my contract termination. Two days after my contract expired, I simply learnt that I was out of a job. I came to know that the rationale behind this firing was a belief that I was too “political”. Moreover, my views regarding student unions and other issues on campus were deemed too liberal and open, effectively marking me too ‘dangerous’ among the small men sitting in big offices of power.

Moreover, I learned the immediate cause of my termination was an open mic session on Kashmir that I supervised this year. During this open mic event, students simply shared their views on Kashmir across a diverse range of perspectives. Evidently, I committed a mistake by allowing students to air their views in an open and free environment – something that is the hallmark of any university seeing itself as a site of critical debate. My contract was terminated, and after four years of dedicated service, I was sent packing.

My case, however, is not unique. Myriad other examples underline a broader trend of universities removing academics when they attempt to exercise academic freedom or unearth corruption within campus administrations.

Just two months prior to my termination, GCU lost one of the finest mathematicians and theoretical physicists, Dr Amer Iqbal, after he produced a 456-page investigative report exposing the university’s corruption. Dr Iqbal was employed at the Abdus Salam School of Mathematical Sciences (ASSMS) GCU, under the same rolling contract, to be renewed after one year. Dr Iqbal’s report revealed an ugly scandal of corruption, where the administration misappropriated Rs638 million in Pakistan’s premiere institute for mathematical science.

In another country, this would have people landed in jails; however, Dr Amer Iqbal was punished for his investigative report when his contract was not renewed. Within fifteen days, he left the country and was employed by a top American university. In effect, GCU and Pakistan lost one of its best mathematicians.

In the same institute in 2017, another Cambridge-returned academic, Dr Ammar Ali Jan, was fired mid-semester. Upon joining, Dr Jan became an immediate sensation among students on campus who longed to see a competent teacher in GCU’s toxic academic culture. Dr Jan’s crime was to invite scholars of history to campus and enable the students to interact with them. The immediate cause of his termination was a solidarity demonstration on campus for Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University who was violently lynched by a mob over blasphemy allegations.

Despite these incidents, neither the government nor the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan have taken interest in reviewing why universities have pursued these firings. Arbitrary dismissals have become a norm in Pakistani universities.

This muzzling of academic freedom has turned Pakistani campuses into rote-learning factories, where graduates are manufactured to conform, unable to think beyond a prescribed national ideology. In these times of crises, where the country is marred by multiple issues – ranging from political instability to an economic crisis – our students should ideally be able to think and question for themselves.

In the name of ideology and security, however, our university apparatuses have taken away the right of free speech and thought from students, thereby plunging our collective consciousness into ignorance. We see the ramifications of this ignorance in the form of incidents like the 2017 lynching of Mashal Khan. Moreover, research and critical enquiry have taken a nose-dive, pushing Pakistani universities into the globe’s bottom rankings.

According to the QS rankings of 2019, no Pakistani university in social sciences has placed even in the first 500th rank. Pakistani academia has not produced a noted public intellectual recognized on the global stage since Eqbal Ahmed.

The reasons for these failures are obvious: Pakistan’s obsession with its national ideology and a security-driven approach to social science research has hampered our ability to produce quality researchers or intellectuals.

The absence of a system built on merit and equal treatment in universities has deprived students of their future, and forced the country’s top academics and researchers – particularly those who avoid petty politicking and choose to teach with dedication – to leave sooner or later.

The writer is an academic.