ASK most aspiring middle-class parents in Lahore what they would like to do for their six-year-old son, and chances are they would reply: “Get him admitted to Aitchison College.”
But with only 124 places available every year, competition for admission is fierce. So much so that the Guardian recently reported an allegation that teachers are known to charge parents Rs2 million for the question papers ahead of the admission test.
Though how you test a six-year-old for merit is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, this is what the principal, Dr Agha Ghazanfar, was asked to do when he was hired over a year ago. Chaudhry Mohammed Sarwar, the previous Punjab governor and head of the college board of governors, announced that henceforth, students would be admitted strictly on merit.
Earlier, places were reserved for the sons and grandsons of well-placed alumni. In fact, the institution was first named Chiefs College when it was established by the British in 1886, and was designed to groom the sons of the Indian aristocracy.
Understandably, this new policy ruffled many feathers, and as soon as Mr Sarwar stepped down from the governorship, the mafia stepped in to restore the admission rights of the powerful. And this is when the new principal got mugged by reality.
Faced by a principal who took merit seriously, and switched exam papers that had been leaked — thereby denying admission to the grandsons of some powerful people — the board sacked Ghazanfar. He went to the Lahore High Court which gave an interim decree allowing him to stay on as principal and retaining his official house and salary, but without the powers that go with the post. All this has been widely covered by the media, including this newspaper.
Our elites are born into a sense of entitlement.
And here the matter rests. One reason I have taken an interest in this controversy is that my son Shakir was educated at Aitchison. And no, I did not pay anything to get him in. Although the academic standards at the college were pretty mediocre, Shakir made many friends he’s still in touch with. In fact, the alumni are a veritable Who’s Who of Pakistani politics.
The other reason for my interest is that Agha Ghazanfar is an old friend who, during his civil service career, did a PhD in administration. But over and above my personal connections to Aitchison College, the whole controversy is symbolic of the sense of entitlement the Pakistani elites are born into.
You can see it everywhere: at the airport, flunkies receive VIPs and carry their briefcases to the VIP lounge; if they have flown in from abroad, their passports will be stamped for them. Heaven forbid they might have to stand in a queue. None of them will ever have to step into a bank to have a cheque cashed, or into an airline office to buy a ticket. Here, I must shamefacedly confess that I was once a junior member of this club.
What makes things worse is when the privileged pass on this sense of entitlement to their children. Even if they are not very bright, they get into the best schools, and are then sent to foreign universities that are happy to take the full fees. When these golden youths return, they are set up in daddy’s business where they are given jobs over the heads of long-serving employees.
Perhaps this nepotism would not matter so much if it just led to the gradual decline of family businesses. However, it sends out a signal that the best need not apply, and that merit will only get you so far.
As it is, by refusing to invest in state schools and allowing millions of kids to get brainwashed in archaic madressahs, we have deprived ourselves of access to the vast ocean of potential that’s out there. I include here the millions of girls denied a meaningful education and challenging careers.
Out of this severely restricted talent pool, many kids are denied upward mobility by the fact that they didn’t go to the right school, and don’t speak English as well as their peers from Aitchison College. Of course, this elitism exists the world over. The English public school system (that confusingly includes private institutions like Eton and Harrow) produces generation after generation of entitled young snobs who look down on their less privileged peers.
But elsewhere, talented young people have some avenues open to them. And positive discrimination is unlocking doors: Oxbridge places are no longer reserved for the sons and daughters of alumni. Now, state school graduates have a very good chance of getting in.
The Indian Institutes of Technology are meritocratic, and there is intense competition for admission. By maintaining very high standards, the IITs have been instrumental in fuelling India’s rise as a technological power.
Considering how damaging this controversy is for the college’s reputation and student morale, perhaps the board should just let the principal get on with his job.
Published in Dawn, October 10th , 2015
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