Due to a depressingly familiar turn of events one of Pakistan’s most famous universities, the Punjab University (PU), found itself becoming the subject of newspaper headlines late last week. Though the details are sketchy, the basic facts of the incident repeat themselves so often that we can fill in the blanks: male and female students, grown and rational adults in a setting meant for grown and rational adults, were fraternising with each other as students who make up an educational institute are want to, but this ‘mixing of the genders’ was predictably an anathema for an infamous Islamic fundamentalist student organisation and they displayed their displeasure by indulging in their time honoured tradition of mindless violence. Their actions resulted in an all out brawl that caused injury to six students, concluding with the arrival of the police and the consequent (temporary) arrest of 10 students belonging to the aforementioned group.
Elsewhere, another famous Pakistani university also made the news when the Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) abruptly removed the head of its National Institute of Historical and Culture Research (NIHCR), Dr Wiqar Ali Shah. Though the university deemed the historian’s removal a matter of routine administrative shakeup, accusations are rife that Dr Shah’s firing was the direct result of a speech he made at a recent conference where he spoke of the need to challenge the official narrative of ‘Pakistan’s history’ and promote the various regional histories that are ignored by the process of state-led mythmaking (my words, not his). Following this speech, the scholar was accused of being ‘anti-Pakistan’ for being sincere with his profession, in another demonstration of depressing predictability. Though his university publically defended him then, he has soon come to feel the heat for going against the grain.
These two incidents, though divided by space and time, succinctly underline the sorrowful state of the ‘university’ as it is conceived in Pakistan. To be fair, the two cannot be equated so simplistically: one is after all the unambiguous hooliganism of a widely reviled student-led organisation that has hijacked many important public universities in the country for the past three decades (to quote just one more recent notable incident: the beating of women playing cricket at Karachi University by the ‘activists’ of the same group) whereas the other is a more prosaic, behind-the-scenes kind of affair and deals with the infinitely more thorny question of ‘national interest’. However, both betray a near total lack of available spaces for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of dissent, freedom of activism, freedom of organisation, freedom of movement and various other fundamental freedoms necessary for the makeup of an intellectually thriving and honest place of learning, reflection and research.
Lest we falsely believe that this particular disease is limited to the ‘riff-raff’ of the public university, allow me to draw some attention to one of Pakistan’s more revered and marketable institutions, an unmistakably ‘elite’ private university located in Lahore that deceptively goes by the name of a mere ‘management sciences’ school (in the interests of full disclosure, the university in question is my alma mater and is an institution that I hold in high regard, and the following examples are coloured by my personal hopes for improvements in the university). The first incident that speaks of this trend of shrinking spaces for intellectual activity was the much publicised cancellation of a talk on the never ceasing Balochistan issue earlier this year; the details of this case are sufficiently public and easily findable that they need not eat up this space. But that was a clear example of the sensitivities surrounding national interest trampling the principles of academic integrity that ought to be unassailable in a university of such repute.
Keeping with the theme of two, the second matter of contention is the presence on campus of the insidious and unfathomably tolerated spectre of a vigilante professor, who, much like the reviled student ‘activists’ from above, is perpetually on the voyeuristic hunt for the faintest of physical proximity between men and women so that he may indulge in the spectacle of self-righteous shaming and imposition of his personal, rigidly defined values. The many victims of this notorious moral crusader and infringer of personal spaces unanimously report of his invocation of the unwritten ‘norms of the university’ and his firm belief that life inside the university should perfectly mirror life outside of university.
It is precisely due to this failure to be able to comprehend or recognise that the space of university is necessarily different from ‘regular’ society that his antics find a place in this column. For people of his dishearteningly common ilk, universities are not meant to be places removed from the minutiae of daily life where the ‘norms’ and ‘values’ of wider society are interrogated and challenged in hopes of bettering the deficiencies of the present. Rather, universities exist, in their imagination, solely to reproduce an assembly line of conformists in service of the status quo, no matter how regressive or oppressive.
It is helpful here to think about the purpose of a university education. To be certain, it will be too high-minded to disregard the role of universities as spaces where students go to get training for a life beyond academia. In this age of degree inflation and high costs of education, it is unfair to not have students expect to make a better living on the back of their degrees. But to reduce the role of university to that of a mere ‘trade school’ is a tragedy too far. There is no need for a binary; a university is necessarily both a place for skills’ enhancement as much as it is a place to satisfy and instil intellectual and political curiosity in the students and make them more ‘well-rounded individuals’ capable of thinking about matters other than their pay checks. If reduced to any one of the two characteristics — and almost always it is the former characteristic — they cease to be universities in the real sense of the word.
Pakistan’s problems are far too many but dismal education situation and policies surely sit on top of the pile. We hear the mantra of ‘education for all’ repeated often and many are convinced that broadening the scale of literacy will automatically improve many of the aforementioned problems. Achieving higher rates of literacy is indeed a valiant goal and an ambition worth supporting but what often goes unaddressed in this series of sloganeering are questions on the nature of this education. If it is simply more of the same we set as a minimum standard then it is impossible to hope for the desired change in the country’s fortunes. It is high time that higher education be rescued from the clutches of self-serving bureaucrats and sanctimonious troublemakers. But if there is any hope that the sorry state of universities can be turned around, it lies with the students themselves. Only by their activism and sincere desire to agitate for better circumstances can we see universities around the country begin to realise their true potential and function as centres of meaningful social change.