Listening to students

Updated December 03, 2018


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

ON Friday, a large number of students participated in coordinated public mobilisation — titled the Students’ Solidarity March — across all major cities of Pakistan. Organised by a number of new student organisations, such as the Progressive Students Collective, the purpose was to raise awareness of issues faced by students, especially in public- and private-sector higher education institutions in the country. As conveyed by various participants and their supporters, the idea of marching on the streets (as with any kind of activism) is to create political traction around the issue of student input in education and educational institutions.

Pakistan has a long history of student activism, and much of it lies nested within larger social currents. Whether it was leftist mobilisation against the Ayub regime, or ethno-nationalist and Islamist battles during the 1980s, or civic mobilisation for the rule of law in the mid-2000s, student politics has often operated as a microcosm of mainstream politics. Periodically, however, we have seen the emergence of activism around the issue central to the occupational identity of students themselves: the quality of education and the experience of studying in universities.

Pakistan is probably one of a handful of states that sets itself up as a democratic republic through its constitution, and yet practises an overwhelmingly large number of exceptions to the provision of constitutional rights. The issue of student voice and representation in universities, for example, is one such exception. Pakistan is not the only country in the world where campus politics has had a history of violence. It is also not the only country in the world where political parties have actively developed student wings. One only needs to look to public-sector universities immediately to our east to find examples of both. Yet as with many other issues of conflict, the Pakistani state’s default reaction has been to ban and coerce, rather than tackle the problem through actual political means.

Recent student activism has gone well beyond issues of access and pointed out issues of quality and education experience as well.

The case for student associations and representation is straightforward and has been made by a number of activists and academics in recent years. What makes the Students’ Solidarity March particularly compelling is that students in campuses across the country are increasingly cognisant and vocal about the multitude of problems plaguing higher education in Pakistan.

Recent analysis put forward by researcher and activist Ammar Rashid sets the record abundantly straight: higher education in the country suffers from issues of access, quality, and experience. On the first, despite urbanisation and associated demographic change, only five per cent of the age-eligible population has a college degree. In comparison, the same figure for India is touching 10pc. The current higher education infrastructure in Pakistan is estimated to cater to at most 9pc of the youth population. Among other things, this is an outcome of years of underfunding where the government allocates a paltry 0.3pc of its GDP to higher education, and diverts most of what it spends to non-education expenditure. Even if we take the most instrumental approach to education — ie as a tool of upgrading human capital and kick-starting economic growth — it is clear that the state is failing on this front.

However, recent student activism has gone well beyond issues of access and pointed out issues of quality and education experience as well. Curricula taught in most public, and even private-sector universities, is outdated and regressive, especially in social science and humanities disciplines. In public-sector universities, teachers essentially act as education department bureaucrats, and more often than not, are undertrained and ill equipped to deal with the requirements of contemporary society (and even the labour market).

In tandem with concerns over quality, students have become increasingly frustrated with the overall material and emotional experience of higher education. Campuses are run like prisons, with high degrees of coercion and regulation on mobility, utilisation of space, and the exchange of ideas. Underfunded and poorly managed facilities means that a large number of out-of-town students are left to fend for themselves, largely at the mercy of an extractive marketplace.

As detailed in a recent piece by the former public-sector university teacher and activist, Dr Ammar Ali Jan, these experiences of access, quality, and coercion manifest themselves in considerable emotional anguish and anomie. There is little to no institutional support for students as they pass through the grind of getting a degree only to find themselves underprepared for a shrinking and heavily stratified labour market.

Most importantly, there is no coherent ideological or sociological way for them to make sense of the dissonance between being told from childhood that a university education is a guaranteed way of attaining success, only to realise its decreasing value upon entering college and then graduating. Disaffected young people, left to their own devices by an inconsiderate state, have produced political complications the world over, and it remains a real risk here as well, especially with Pakistan’s vast array of Islamist organisations on the prowl for recruits.

Given the sheer scale and complexity of these issues, the importance of students advocating for their resolution cannot be understated. One of the usual critiques levelled at student organisations (or any interest group for that matter) is that they are Trojan horses designed to attain private benefits such as status, prestige, or material reward for its members.

Whether that is necessarily the case or not is moot. But the fact that a new generation of student activists are couching their demands in the language of public welfare is of utmost significance. No one in the country can plausibly deny that higher education needs to be improved. So when students — ie the recipients of higher education — offer their views on how these improvements can be made, it is incumbent on the state and the political elite to pay attention.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2018