By Salman Sikandar
The youth in Pakistan makes almost sixty percent of the total population of the country. Unfortunately, most of the young people do not make it to the Universities owing to the expenses of higher education. Many students end their education after completing their Intermediate while some opt for the two year B.A program. Those who make it to the universities comprise not more than 4 or 5 percent of the total population of the country. Ideally, this 4 to 5 percent of university going youth in a country with 60 percent of the youth population shouldn’t face any issues. However, the situation is far from being ideal in the universities of Pakistan.
When it comes to articulate the issues that the students face in educational institutions, there is no end to the long list of problems. Yet some of the issues are too serious to be hidden under the carpet. Furthermore, the Coronavirus cracked open all the contradictions that had been hidden by society for so long. One of that contradiction was the education system of the country and the plethora of contradictions within the education system that was not visible before. The pandemic was a realization of the fact that the education system has become exclusionary instead of being inclusive. It has more to do with your ethnicity, class and gender rather than education. Take the example of protests that erupted after the government enforced online classes. The demands of protesting students in all corners of the country were similar and echoed the fact that the state had ignored their areas for seventy years. They were protesting for the internet so that they could attend online classes just like their fellows from Punjab are attending. They had to climb mountains to catch the signals of the internet. The protests manifested that these students had been excluded from the education system for 70 years. It also made people think that why the universities in Balochistan and Sindh are so less in number or there are not any universities in case of FATA and GB.
In the 21st century, when students learn more through the internet than in classes, imagine how systematic the exclusion of students of peripheral areas has become. This exclusive education system that was hidden for decades has now come to surface. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The campuses in peripheral areas are highly securitized. The students literally study under the shadows of guns. When the guns set limits to what one should think and what one is not “allowed” to think, could we really call that space a university? When these students come to the centre for education, they are stigmatized, haunted by the police and excluded by the teachers in classes.
Similarly, after the decrease in the education budget, some universities like the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) announced the Self-finance seats while increasing the semester fee at the same time. It implied that the seats reserved for the so-called self-finance were sold. These seats were taken by the students who came on merit and most students who belong to humble backgrounds strive to get their enrollment in public universities like UET. However, some of these seats were sold in more than 1.5 lac for each seat. At the same time, the semester fee of the regular student was also increased. This is just the story of one institute, almost all of them have opted for similar things after the decrease in education’s budget. Who bears the brunt of this? Who gets excluded by the growing fees in public universities? It is always those who hardly have food on their tables yet prefer to get education.
The exclusion of women from higher education is also very systematic. Considering the already less number of women pursuing higher education particularly in peripheral areas, there should’ve been scholarships for women. However, instead of giving them scholarships, they are being excluded even more. Last year a horrific incident in Balochistan University shocked us all. The Vice-Chancellor had installed cameras in the washrooms of women and in this way almost every woman student was harassed. Yet in the province which had already a very low number of women students took no action against the VC. Similarly, during the coronavirus, multiple students came forward and talked about the predators in Universities, yet no action was taken against anyone with one or two exceptions. The universities are filled with harassers and they enjoy impunity in universities like Government College University owing to their power. It is clear in the rule book of the Higher Education Commission that each campus should have a harassment committee yet there are very few campuses which have them. The ones which have harassment committees, do not have any woman representative in them let alone student representation. For instance, GCU last month established a harassment committee with one woman and more than five men. What is the reason for more men to inquire about something that is women’s’ concern predominantly?
A large number of women students have to leave university even education in many cases owing to their harassment. This is how women are being excluded from the education system.
The education system has become exclusionary. It needs major reforms which could address these huge issues. The reforms are not possible without taking into account the democratic representation of students. All the decisions from increasing fee to lack of harassment committees and from online classes to the issue of scholarships have one thing in common. That is the lack of students representation in the decision-making process. Even though education reforms is an immediate issue, it couldn’t be done properly without giving the students the right to vote for their representatives on campus.