Threat to academic freedom

02 Jul 2020

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FACED with the threat of a province-wide strike by university professors, the Punjab government has promised not to introduce the Public Universities (Amendment) Act, 2020, in the provincial assembly for the time being, but this does not mean the plan to curtail the autonomy of universities has been given up.

The proposed enactment seeks to amend the laws under which 29 public-sector universities in the province have been functioning. The main provision of the draft law aims at removing the vice chancellor from the chairmanship of the syndicate and appointing in his place a retired judge of the Lahore High Court (LHC) or the Supreme Court or a retired civil servant who has risen to BS21.

The syndicate is the highest decision-making body of a university and reserving its chairmanship for the vice chancellor has meant university autonomy. His replacement by an outsider, however eminent in his own occupation, will put a cross on the autonomy of the institution.

The proposed composition of the syndicate is also worth noting. It will include: the vice chancellor; the pro-vice chancellor, if any; one member of the provincial assembly, to be nominated by the speaker; two members (including a woman) to be nominated by the Senate; the chief justice of the LHC, or his nominee from amongst the judges of LHC; secretary education or his nominee, not below the rank of additional secretary; secretary finance or his nominee not below the rank of additional secretary; one nominee of the University Grants Commission (UGC); one dean to be nominated by the chancellor on the recommendation of the vice chancellor; one professor, one associate professor, one assistant professor and one lecturer to be elected from amongst themselves; three eminent persons, including one scholar in Islamic jurisprudence, and a woman not working for any educational institution, nominated by the chancellor; one female principal of an affiliated college, to be nominated by the chancellor; the president of the students’ union.

It is wrong to make universities conform to the designs of those who are insensitive to pluralism.

The references to the UGC and students’ union suggest that the idea of axing university autonomy, which is straight out of Ziaul Haq’s manual for thought control mechanisms, has survived regime changes, and the inheritors of the general’s mantle have not given up their efforts to complete his unfinished agenda.

This is proved by the proceedings of the meeting of the Vice Chancellors’ Committee held at the GC University, Lahore, on July 6, 2018. The meeting was attended by 11 vice chancellors, the chairman of the Punjab Higher Education Commission and the provincial secretary for the Higher Education Department. The committee expressed the following opinion on the question of manipulating the syndicate:

“It was highlighted by the members that in some universities established after 2002, the pro-chancellor (the minister for education) is the chairman of the syndicate, which is against the autonomy of the university and its spirit. This requires a change in the charters of these universities … It is unanimously recommended that the vice-chancellors should chair the meetings of the syndicate in the newly established universities as is done in the older universities.”

It is thus clear that some elements in the Punjab government have been pursuing their desire to control the universities with a zeal worthy of a nobler cause.

For many days, university teachers held demonstrations to protest against the Public Sector Universities (Amendment) Act. They gave reasons for rejecting the draft legislation. For instance, the faculty of Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology at its meeting the other day declared that the draft legislation was contrary to international best practices and that it was unlikely to improve administration or strengthen academic affairs. They added that the draft law was likely to lead to unnecessary political interference in university affairs and seriously harm its autonomy.

That the government is not unaware of the criticism of its plans over the past many years is proved by the fact that the number of members of the provincial assembly in the syndicate has been reduced from three in the earlier legislation to one in the present draft.

Now the government is reported to have told the protesting teachers that it will present the draft law in the provincial assembly after consulting the stakeholders. But the government had already shown its design to control the seats of learning in the universities established after 2002, as pointed out by the Vice Chancellors’ Committee in 2018. Besides, it is difficult to see possibilities of a compromise between the government’s determination to undermine universities’ autonomy and the teachers’ resolve to protect it.

The main weakness in the government’s policy seems to be a failure to recognise that its attempt to control the universities by capturing the syndicates is not merely an administrative matter; it is a brazen-faced assault on academic freedom. It is wrong to make universities conform to a model designed by people who are insensitive to the marvels of pluralism. Of course, the universities will follow the internationally devised disciplines, especially in the areas of science and technology. But in the field of social sciences, they must be free to respond to their communities’ historical and sociocultural values and aspirations.

Conformism will discourage the universities from performing their most fundamental role in extending the frontiers of knowledge and producing graduates capable of challenging inherited wisdom, and not a horde of morons.

The controversies generated by drafting the Public Sector Universities (Amendment) Act will end only when the draft legislation is struck off the Punjab government’s agenda.

Tailpiece: The petroleum riddle has been solved. The reduction in petroleum products’ prices threatened the oil companies with huge losses. They tried to reduce their losses by curtailing supplies. The government also realised it was losing money if sales were low. The government and the oil companies had a common interest in raising prices. Hence, a hefty increase in prices of petroleum products.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020