Controversy on campus

March 29, 2020

The ‘sacking’ of a political science lecturer at GCU recently has again brought to light the sad fact that such cases are frequent occurrences at public sector educational institutions

Government College University. — Photo: Rahat Dar

The Government College University (GCU) recently refused to extend the teaching contract of a political science lecturer, Zaighum Abbas. According to the varsity officials, the contract was subject to available workload and there was a need to reduce staff. The officials also made it clear that the lecturer was free to apply for a permanent position in order for the selection board to decide whether or not to give him a regular appointment.

Abbas has alleged that he was terminated because of his progressive political views and his efforts to promote critical thinking among his students. But, according to the vice chancellor, Prof Dr Asghar Zaidi, Abbas “has not been released due to his political views or dissent.”

The university administration claimed that the decision not to renew the contract was routine and that there was no ulterior motive behind it.

Abbas is not the only one to have made such allegations. There have been similar instances at the GCU in the past. Amir Yaqub, for one, had taught Muslim political thought at the university and was often found encouraging the students to question basic ideas around them. He suffered from the same fate as Abbas and was unable to continue with his classes. Ahmed Hayat, who was also popular amongst his students for the interesting class discussions and a liberal approach towards contemporary political events, was not offered a fresh contract after nine years of teaching at the university. He too was not given a permanent position despite trials to get one.

Such cases have also occurred in other government educational institutes. In 2018, Ammar Ali Jan was removed from the Punjab University’s Sociology Department. According to him, the varsity had accused him of “unnecessary encouragement” of students resulting in their becoming “needlessly vocal”. The varsity administration rejected these claims, and pointed out that Jan’s contract had expired. It said the decision not to offer a fresh contract was the outcome of a regular, transparent procedure.

In most such cases, the administrations reject accusations of hindering political debate and describe any attack on them as “social media propaganda” by “contract lecturers”.

Given the disagreement on whether or not the public institutions of the country allow intellectual discourse in their liberal arts courses, it is clearly relevant to hear what the students say.

A student from GCU told TNS that Zaighum Abbas was quite popular among his students — his classes were known to be engaging and contemporary, unlike some other political science courses offered at the university. The student said that having studied at the varsity for a considerable amount of time he could say that the GCU “administration does not encourage political activism.” Student Solidarity March and the Aurat March were not events that the administration would encourage their students to participate in. In fact, it is obvious that they would have a problem with a teacher promoting such events on the campus.

A political science student at the GCU said that they had been told that their main goal was to become good Ravians and not challenge the basic views fed to them by the macro institutions the university operates through.

The Political Science Department seemed least concerned with the current political realities around the world. Students claimed that the courses offered to them were traditional and insufficient. They also said that some of the teachers deserved to be called teaching undergraduates — “they are hired on contractual basis in order to be removed at any time convenient to the administration.”

Courses such as Elitist Politics are being offered on strict terms set by elite groups within the university. At the beginning of the class, the students are told that any remarks on Pakistani state institutions would result in them being asked to leave. If the students can be subjected to such treatment, what might contractual teachers be going through?

A student claimed that in a course meant to teach Ethnic Politics, the students were barred from discussing the role played by the Punjab and were made to sit in the back if they showed up in traditional shalwar qamees. Some other students claimed that they were poked fun at if they belonged to smaller towns. Yet another student said that anyone who was a part of groups such as the Progressive Students Union and participated in a political movement was unofficially barred from sitting in the exams. Moreover, while political societies do exist at the university, they fail to serve any significant function. If a teacher or student tries to change these restrictive circumstances they are met with stern administrative actions.

The GCU Political Science Department, on the other hand, claims to have a complex and diverse learning programme in place that is ‘relevant to the globalised world’. The teachers too are said to have agency within their classrooms in order to deliver knowledge in the best possible way. As far as Abbas is concerned, his contract expired and it was not renewed as the university did not require more instructors for the semester.

Abbas was assigned a course at the beginning of the semester but was later stopped from entering the classroom.

The university claims that there were too many courses being offered and there was no room for the one being offered by Abbas. After terminating his contract (which had been renewed in the past) the university introduced a new set of evening courses.

While student reviews must play a major part in the hiring and firing decisions at a liberal arts college, this does not seem to be the case at the GCU.

The purpose behind liberal arts degrees must be understood, if they do not fulfill their purpose, they are essentially useless. Moreover, teachers at public institutions must be given the right to agency.

Liberal art courses and degrees are meant to promote critical thinking and questioning the status quo in the light of intellectual discourse. There is a difference between a skill-based education and one that is meant to train individuals who might improve existing systems using thought provoking ideas. According to Jan, courses in sociology, anthropology and political science fail to serve their purpose if they are not thought provoking.

The education offered at public institutions in Pakistan must be at par with the one offered globally in order to produce successful graduates. Some systematic changes need to be made in order to address the grievances of the two main stakeholders in the educational system: the student and the teacher.

It must be understood that education does not equal being given a piece of paper in four years. The purpose behind liberal arts degrees must be understood, if they do not fulfill their purpose, they are essentially useless. Moreover, teachers at public institutions must be given the right to agency. There should be an association of contract workers that can at least participate in the formation of such contracts, which are theoretically invalid if one of the parties gets to dictate the terms. Universities around the country must stop acting as petty policemen and start acting as beacons of knowledge and intellect. 

‘Sacking’ of GCU lecturer showed that such cases frequently occur at public sector educational institutions