By Zubeida Mustafa
There is much speculation these days about the impending change in the status of the St Joseph’s and the St Patrick’s Colleges in Karachi. The Sindh government’s move to “retransfer” or “denationalize” these colleges has angered the teachers’ community and their association has launched a protest movement.
Given the state of college education – in fact the entire education sector – in the country it is important that the issue be discussed dispassionately and objectively in all sections who feel concern for the future of the younger generation.
A few schools had been denationalized by General Ziaul Haq’s regime and there had been some talk of returning the nationalized colleges to their owners. But it was only in 2001 that a serious move was made when the Sindh cabinet decided on the guidelines to “retransfer/denationalize educational institutions”.
These categorically stated that all nationalized institutions would be transferred back to their owners or genuine successors if they applied for it. Institutions that were not claimed within three years would be permanently retained by the government. Priority was to be given to community-based welfare organizations.
The conditions laid down required the claimants to establish clear title. It was also stated that “the premises will be used for imparting education only”. Other terms and conditions pertained to the services of the staff, their salaries, golden handshake, etc.
They were made on the assumption that the staff and students would be transferred along with the college building to the new management, the Catholic Board in the case of SJC and SPCs.
These conditions have been laid down ostensibly to safeguard the interests of the stakeholders, namely, the teachers and the students. But it was never questioned how the staff who are government servants and the students who were admitted under the centralized admission policy of the education department could be dumped as a liability on the Catholic Board which had applied for the return of these institutions.
In fact a process of negotiations started between the Catholic Board and the authorities which has been frustratingly slow. The delay was partly on account of the government’s own political constraints.
Elections were due in October 2002 and the administration did not want an issue to be brought into the limelight which was bound to be exploited by its opponents as a political weapon.
The negotiations have centred round the financial terms of the transfer – how many teachers are to be retained and for how many years. None of the points of agreement reached verbally have been incorporated in a written document.
Nor has a memorandum of understanding been signed. On July 28, 2004 the Sindh cabinet again decided to return these colleges but there has been no movement forward. The notification which normally follows a cabinet decision has still to reach the Education Department, though five weeks have elapsed.
Meanwhile the SPLA has used this delay to come into the field capturing newspaper headlines with stories of its protest and colourful pictures of young students demonstrating in various colleges.
It is time for some calm and serious negotiations on the issue. On talking to various parties – or stakeholders to use the term in current use – we realized that the issue is not as complex as is being made out to be by some government functionaries and the agitating teachers. It appears that the confrontation has been artificially created by vested interests.
To begin with, the courts set the tone in the case. In its judgment the Sindh High Court held that the services of teachers who are government servants cannot be transferred to the private sector.
The Supreme Court on its part ordered the return of the properties of the minorities. Hence it is not at all clear why the Education Department has been dillying dallying and trying to impose stringent financial terms on the two colleges to force them to accommodate the staff and students already there.
According to Sister Mary Emily, who was the principal of SJC when it was nationalized in 1972, it would cost the Catholic Board Rs 1,600,000 per annum to meet the terms of the government only for the transfer of SJC. SPC would incur an additional sum.
The government’s stand is ambiguous. It has spoken of returning these colleges but at the same time it has not announced so far that technically this involves a straightforward hand over of their property to the original owners. This would not be an unprecedented case.
In other instances, the government colleges functioning in private premises have been moved into government buildings and the property returned to the lawful owners. That is how it was in the case of St Lawrence’s College and the Safya College in Karachi and the Forman Christian College in Lahore.
The SJC is located in Saddar on 2.06 acres of prime land which was leased in perpetuity by the Military Estate Office in June 1949 for the purpose of building a women’s college.
The government itself recognizes the Catholic Board’s title to the land by paying it a princely sum of Rs 22,500 per annum as rent ever since the college was nationalized.
It is a pity that this simple situation has been made so intractable. A major role in this crisis has been played by the SPLA for reasons best known to it. It took us by surprise when in a meeting its president Mr Riaz Ahsan himself suggested that the SJC be transferred to one of the 13 college buildings which the Karachi nazim has pointed out are lying vacant and the premises be handed back to the Catholic Board.
When asked if this solution was acceptable to him, Mr Ahsan categorically answered in the affirmative, as had the SJC teachers when I had posed them the same question earlier. He assured us repeatedly that his fight was not with the Catholic Board but with the Education Department.
Yet he has been quite happy to let the impression be conveyed that one of his demands is to stall “denationalization”. When asked why he did not publicly articulate his demand to return the premises to the Catholic Board and shift the college elsewhere, he said he could not reveal his cards prematurely as he claimed to be a skilful negotiator.
In the process the SPLA has created more confusion by advancing all kinds of arguments and making charges that have little bearing on the present situation. These range from the absurd claim that the standard of education in these colleges was dismally low before nationalization and the extraordinary performance of their students in examinations today is to be attributed to the college being in the public sector.
Re-transferring the college to the Catholic Board would, according to the SPLA leader, hurt the cause of education. It would deprive the poor masses of low cost education, because as a private college it would charge an exorbitant fee that would be unaffordable for the students from low-income families.
Mr Riaz Ahsan alleged that the Catholic Board had made its claim for the college when it found that CAP, which is the admission policy based on open merit, had denied students from the missionary schools access to the college which was now taking students from all over the city.
Then he expressed the fear that the land would be used to build a shopping plaza! His rhetoric was regularly punctuated with declaration of his commitment to education and his important role in society as a teacher.
The fact is that college education has suffered because of deteriorating academic standards that is confirmed by the widespread prevalence of the tuition syndrome, overcrowding in classrooms and the excruciatingly slow rate of expansion of the college network. The solution offered by the teachers would address all these issues by shifting the existing institution to other premises.
The college which will be set up by the Catholic Board would, given its past record and glorious tradition, provide high quality education. This would of course cost more than the Rs900 per annum the students pay in a government college but it would still be much less than the fabulous amount most students of SJC were paying in the expensive private schools they studied in before they came to college.
It would be in the interest of education if the teachers who are agitating – though they don’t describe their action as such – stopped using this as their trump card for their trade union purposes.
They have linked their demands for promotion and pay rise to the SJC and SPC issue. The government could rob them of their pretext to protest by resolving the issue in accordance with the courts’ judgments.