Urban sprawl

Policy solutions to enable inclusive and equitable access to education exist

Urban sprawl


any universities in Pakistan have been established in bustling urban centres, clustered together to allow resource and knowledge-sharing between institutions. The rampant population growth and congestion around these clusters is now negatively impacting the purpose they serve — providing equitable access to quality higher education.

The first campus of the University of Punjab in Lahore, founded in 1882, was originally built for fewer than 1,000 students. The university now has more than 35,000 enrolled students. This exponential growth is mainly due to rapid urbanization. As migrant populations settled in surrounding areas, places like Islampura, Bhati Gate and Mozang morphed into crowded slums, housing many of the students who commuted daily to access the university’s resources.

Many of the PU students spend up to three hours a day in crowded buses and rickshaws just to attend classes and access library materials. This impacts enrollment and retention rates for disadvantaged students, especially females as many parents prefer not to send them for higher education. Those who persevere, suffer from disrupted sleep cycles; malnutrition on account of from a lack of healthy food options nearby close to where they live; and poor academic performance.

As mobility remains a key constraint in the students’ decisions, recent public transportation projects, namely the Metro Bus and Orange Line Train, have helped.

Surveys show that a large number of students use these facilities to commute to their educational institutions. The Lahore Metro, with stations stretching across Ferozepur Road is particularly useful for students at varying distances to reach the city centre.

It is learnt that the Islamabad Airport Metro will have a designated station for the National University of Science and Technology. However, not all Pakistani cities have quality intra-city public transport facilities.

Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, is a comprehensive example of the obstacles and their impact on quality of education. The urban sprawl has led to the construction of more houses and road networks, but the rate of growth is not matched by the provision of adequate public transport. This has made many areas inaccessible for those not owning a vehicle.

A similar problem is developing in Islamabad around the HEC cluster in the H-10 sector, including Quaid-i-Azam University, Allama Iqbal Open University and International Islamic University. Apartment blocks housing up to five students per room have mushroomed in the city. Many of these facilities lack proper water, gas and waste disposal plans.

Some of the construction has been done using substandard materials, often flouting safety regulations. Fires are reported too frequently for comfort. With the boom in property prices in Islamabad, it is hard for fresh graduates with entry-level jobs, let alone students, to consider living near their offices.

Some of the top universities in Pakistan, including the LUMS and the NUST, seem to have cracked the code by developing campuses that balance density with integrated transport, housing and amenities. The LUMS has a self-contained campus with dorms, dining, recreational facilities and security arrangements. This enables a holistic learning environment.

The NUST’s 707-acre Islamabad campus has dedicated student hostels, playgrounds, libraries and information technology laboratories.

Both the LUMS and the NUST examples show that constructing regulated housing and thoughtfully designing campuses, rather than allowing unplanned growth around existing clusters can help provide quality education. Their graduate employability is resulting in high application rates. However, high tuition fees at these institutes, the LUMS especially, tend to restrict access to only affluent households, leading to elitism with human capital development limited to privileged socioeconomic groups.

Still, their campus planning success stories should attract public policy focus towards improving infrastructure and housing foresight around mass access to public universities now straining from surrounding population density pressures.

The dichotomy between crowded public universities like the Punjab University and institutions like the LUMS and the NUST highlights the growing inequality in access to quality higher education across income levels in Pakistan.

While nearly 35,000 students are enrolled at the Punjab University, LUMS has just over 5,000 undergraduate students. While the Punjab University struggles to provide essential services like housing and transport for its ballooning student population, the LUMS has an integrated 100-acre campus boasting subsidised transport, accommodation, state-of-the-art labs and libraries that enable a focused learning environment.

However, high fees at the LUMS place the facilities and academic quality out of reach of many a talented youth from the middle- and lower-income families. [Its National Outreach Programme aims to make education accessible to all with scholarships for those who may struggle to afford the fee.]

While the Punjab University is surrounded by unplanned development, students who can’t afford private education face worsening conditions like gruelling commutes and security hazards that impact enrollment, retention and learning outcomes.

This widening gap in access and education standards based on socio-economic status will only exacerbate inequality and diminish upward mobility.

Other private institutions in Lahore, like the LSE, too cannot escape problems caused by unplanned growth. While it charges fees comparable to the LUMS, the LSE lacks hostel accommodation for students. Also, its location at the edge of Defence Phase 6, has led to inflated rents and scarce housing options nearby.

This forces many students to endure long commutes to access the university. The case of LSE also serves as an example of the rapid urban sprawl affecting access to education.

The trends are visible across both public and private higher education institutions in Pakistan’s urban clusters. The country urgently needs to improve its foresight in developing universities. If not, the very purpose of education as a tool for equitable opportunity and socio-economic mobility will remain constrained.

The chaos surrounding Pakistan’s universities underlines systemic urban planning failures in terms of critical infrastructure and youth welfare.

Here is how education hubs like Boston, USA, handle large student populations. The MBTA Red Line Light Rail connects the Cambridge cluster of esteemed Harvard and MIT campuses to central Boston institutions like Northeastern University and downtown medical research facilities. Outlying areas housing education centres like Tufts, Lesley and Boston College have feeder bus and commuter rail connectivity to facilitate affordable student transit options spanning these knowledge nuclei.

Such conscious enabling of opportunity platforms, regardless of socio-economic status, by holistically addressing accessibility, mobility, and infrastructure around academic clusters is typical of global best practices in development. Pakistan direly needs to learn from these examples by stepping back and recognising the deepening negative impacts of the higher education chaos enveloping its major cities.

Improved planning foresight and coordination between civic agencies is pivotal. If Pakistani policymakers continue to ignore such imperatives, the very ability of education to fulfil its egalitarian purpose will be compromised.

Policy solutions to enable inclusive and equitable access to education exist. The question remains whether the authorities will awaken from their complacency before it is too late for another generation of capable youth facing compromised learning environments.

Corrective steps encompassing housing, transit, satellite facilities, enrollment management and infrastructure improvement cannot be postponed indefinitely without major social repercussions.

Pakistan’s historic university clusters still promote collaboration and resource concentration. However, the failure to ensure student welfare, safety and access risks eclipsing the marginal efficiency benefits.

Dropping enrollment and surging inequality around elite learning centres directly counteract their original purpose as equitable platforms meant to foster socio-economic mobility. Holistic revitalisation embracing globally established best practices can foster stimulating inclusive ecosystems. The window for proactive planning to realign these flagships to benefit all students is narrowing rapidly.

Beyond a certain point, the accumulated anarchy may inflict irredeemable harm.

Faaiz Gilani is the co-founder of community learning platform HamSukhan. He holds a master’s from the UCL.

Harum Bhinder is a UX designer specialising in K-12 edtech. She holds a master’s from Harvard.

Urban sprawl