To rescue Pakistan’s crumbling education system, students, as the primary stakeholders of the system, must be allowed to speak, peacefully organise and have a say in decision-making about matters that determine their future
The police brutality against students at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) on Monday was a vivid illustration of Pakistani authorities’ approach to students — one reeking of paternalism and criminalisation. The incident brought into view both the criminal neglect of Pakistan’s public higher education as well as the severely diminished political space available for students to respond to it.
For 17 days, students at QAU under the banner of the Quaidian Student Federation (a student body composed of representatives of QAU’s ethno-national councils) had been on strike for demands that included an end to unaffordable fee increases, increases in severely-depleted hostel and transport facilities, accountability for internal university corruption, and the restoration of Baloch and Sindhi students previously expelled by the administration without due process for being involved a violent clash.
For two weeks, the QAU administration led by Vice-Chancellor Javed Ashraf had largely ignored the substance of students’ demands and questioned the very basis for the strike, arguing that collective political action by students was in itself illegal. He had also been under pressure from members of faculty and staff opposed to the ‘appeasement’ of the striking students (amid rumours about how their hard-line stance was a means to get the VC replaced for a candidate of their choice). In this inflexible vein, the administration had even registered FIRs against several student protestors on grounds of carrying out ‘disruptive activities’.
On Saturday October 21st, the administration appeared to agree to some of the students’ demands (minus the expelled students’ restoration) and promised, among other things, a written notification for a 10 percent fee reduction on Monday, after which the QSF agreed to call off the strike. Come Monday however, the administration went back on the notification promise and instead invited police onto campus to arrest students en masse, the bulk of them Baloch and Pakhtun students who had opposed calling off the strike. When the smoke cleared after hours of violence and arrests, the strike was over and the students’ demands ostensibly forgotten.
A considerable section of mainstream public opinion in Pakistan tends to support such hard-line measures against students in defence of ‘order’ and ‘discipline’ on campuses and to guard against student ‘hooliganism’. While such views are unsurprising in a society with a history of authoritarianism, they tend to be disconnected from the economic and political realities that give rise to such conflict and unrest on campuses in the first place.
For one, the neo-liberalisation of Pakistan’s higher education system has left it in a state of decay. While educational privatization accelerates, university development budgets have been slashed as the government diverts billions from HEC funding (more than 60 percent in 2016-17) to high visibility infrastructure projects. Fund shortages at HEC have meant a halt to the development of important programs relied on by students and faculty, from accommodation and transport to research and training. Tellingly, the number of scholars studying abroad for PhDs has shrunk to less than a quarter of HEC targets in recent years while Pakistan’s positions in global rankings have continued to plummet.
In the past, as recognised collective bargaining agents, unions had allowed students to have a say in university decision-making, keep checks on the use of university resources and play a role as organised advocates for education access and quality in the country
Universities have responded to cuts by shifting the cost to the students through fee increases and other profit-making measures — rent-seeking that particularly hurts the working-to-middle class and ethnic minority students that tend to make up the bulk in public sector universities like QAU.
Students, as the primary subjects and beneficiaries of the education system, could be an effective force for reform. Yet Pakistani governments have consistently (and violently) sought to keep them neutralized and ineffective as an organised force, with a dubious 33 year-old student union ban still in place.
In the past, as recognised collective bargaining agents, unions had allowed students a say in university decision-making, kept checks on the use of university resources and pl
ayed a role as advocates for education access and quality in the country. They had also permitted students a space for healthy ideological debate and competition, which meant students from various ethno-linguistic and religious backgrounds learnt of non-violent mechanisms to resolve their differences and form coalitions around common ideas.
When the state took away those democratic spaces, student political culture across campuses gradually regressed into parochialism and conservativism. The basis for whatever informal student politics that remained became reduced to the lowest common denominators like religion or ethnicity.
QAU’s ethno-national councils, initiated as an ‘apolitical’ substitute for student unions, exemplify Pakistani students’ contemporary organizational weakness in many ways. They remain excluded from formal participation in university decision-making (with their roles confined to ‘cultural’ activities) and their ethnically-segregated electoral structure often serves to disincentive political and ideological cooperation among students, with council leaders inclined towards highlighting cultural differences to protect their own identity-based spheres of authority. While the current QAU strike was an admirable display of inter-ethnic unity for a common purpose, the administration was ultimately able to prey on existing fault lines of identity among the student body to divide them.
A lack of genuine, representative political space for students has been disastrous for Pakistani society. It has fostered political apathy and weakness among a social segment that could have played a critical role in Pakistan’s stunted political evolution. It has facilitated the deterioration of our education system — it is no accident that public education in Pakistan has crumbled as those best able to hold duty-bearers for education to account have been kept from organising.
The truth is that the crisis in public higher education that QAU students have shone light on will not be solved through repression, but by deepening space for open democratic debate and participation. To salvage Pakistan’s education system from its current depths, students, as the primary stakeholders of the system, must be allowed to speak, assemble, organise and have a say in decision-making about matters that determine their future. Pakistan’s authorities must stop deluding themselves that they can resolve such deep-rooted structural problems through state violence and do what is necessary — lift the ban on student unions now.
The writer is a researcher in gender, development and public policy and a political worker for the Awami Workers Party. He tweets @ammarrashidt