Empty corridors

By Zubeida Mustafa

Universities are the future of the nation. The gloom in the university today looks like a forecast for the future of the country.

 Nothing sums up more poignantly the state of affairs at the University of Karachi and its ominous implications for society as these words uttered despairingly by an eminent educationist.

What should be perturbing is that the death-like stillness which has pervaded the campus in the last few weeks since it was abruptly closed for an indefinite period in mid-January has become a normal pattern of university life in Karachi. The NED and the professional colleges have not escaped the malaise of frequent unscheduled closures either.

University8-02-1986Some facts and figures are quite telling. Unfortunately they never come cumulatively to public notice. Hence they fail to make an impact and there is little awareness of how the city’s institutions of higher education are being destroyed slowly but surely.

One clear sign of this apathy is the fact that the events at the Karachi and NED Universities and the professional colleges have failed to spark off a public debate.

Even those who claim to be the elected representatives of the people remain unconcerned and have not bothered to intervene. On the contrary, when there was trouble at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad last year, MNAs and other leaders of public opinion had stepped in.

Since January 1984, the students of the Karachi University have lost nearly 300 days to agitation or unscheduled closures. The list is stupendous: February — May 1984 (102 days) students boycott of classes in protest against ban on unions; December 1984 (11 days) referendum; February 1985 (11 days) elections; April — July 1985 (95 days) Bushra Zaidi case; January 1986 onwards (43 days) student clashes.

The remaining days have not been devoted to classes either. There have been interruptions caused by holidays (which are observed more scrupulously by the university than any other institution), inter-semester breaks and admissions. The mid-term tests and the comprehensive examinations take up nearly 12 weeks in a semester — as much time as is normally allotted to lectures. In two years only three semesters have been completed, when the fifth should have been half way through. Admission could be held only once and that too after a lapse of two years.

The students, without doubt, have been the worst sufferers. Those who joined the First Year Honours in April 1981 have not been able to complete their MA until now.

Despondency

 Students who embarked on their medical education in March 1980 will be lucky if they graduate this year. Engineering students of the 1982 Intermediate batch have still not completed their third semester at the NED.

It is not strange that the frequent disruption of the academic schedule breeds despondency and frustration — and not among the students alone. Intellectually the most productive years of their lives are being wasted. But the teachers are equally unhappy.

“When we go into the classroom we feel like the player who comes on the field after a long time. His muscles are stiff. His body aches and he is out of practice. We barely manage to get back into form and build a tempo when the university is closed again. We never know for how long,” observes a female lecturer.

Of late, one single factor which accounts for the frequent closures is student violence. Although why this should be so is puzzling, for the Karachi University has had a long tradition of agitation (second only to Dhaka in pre-Bangladesh years) but academic schedules were never thrown out of gear as they are now.

The first students’ agitation took place in 1952 soon after the university was established. At that time the language policy of the Government had come under attack. Ever since, multifarious issues such as the education policy, Urdu-Sindhi issue, fees, hostels, semester system, unions, etc., have led to students’ protest.

A senior Professor earmarks 1979 as the turning point. “That was the year when the first bullet was fired,” he says. It was at the oath-taking ceremony of the union. Thenceforth Sten guns, knives, lathis and Kalashnikovs have found their way into the two campuses and professional colleges. Fire arms are freely used when rival groups clash. On the last occasion in Jaunary, there was a shoot-out that lasted for hours.

The administration’s instinctive reaction is to close the educational institution affected. It is not very clear who actually takes the decision. Many of the teachers I talked to said the University authorities have no say in the matter. Some people close to the University Administration, however, gave me the impression that the Vice- Chancellor is consulted. The wisdom of this response, however, is now being widely questioned — by students, parents and teachers alike, more so because the period of closure is allowed to drag on interminably.

Negative move

Dr Mohammad Ilyas, who was the Principal of the Sind Medical College from 1980 to 1984, insisted that closing down colleges and universities is a negative move. “It causes academic loss and leads to frustration,” he said. “The authorities close down educational institutions to deter students from further violence. Since indefinite closures can hurt, the administration tries to punish students in  this manner to force them to keep the peace. But this can be counterproductive,” Dr Ilyas said. In the year he was the principal, the S.M.C. was never closed arbitrarily, Dr Ilyas claimed. But the University administration feels that unless it can guarantee the physical safety of the students, it would not want them on the campus. “It is no use keeping up the pretence that the university is functioning. If bullets are being exchanged daily, parents will not send their children there. Attendance will be low and classes will not be held,” noted a professor who is also performing some administrative functions. Dr Ilyas and other teachers feel that this is an exaggerated view of things and an overreaction on the part of the administration. They point out that other universities in the country also have their share of violence, but are not closed as frequently for prolonged periods as Karachi’s institutions. In fact, one teacher feels that this is a part of the Government’s deliberate policy of discriminating against Sind. “Such academic disruptions are hurting the students in the province — not just educationwise but also in terms of employment,” she said. Many of the teachers are of the view that if the Administration were to be seriously interested in curbing student violence it could enforce discipline. They were unanimously of the opinion that the age-old tradition of keeping the police off the campus can no longer be respected in the present situation. “When you are called on to deal with gun-wielding individuals, even though they constitute a very small minority, moral influence can be an ineffective weapon. Moreover, the compulsions of physical safety cannot be ignored,” the teachers emphasised.

What they question is not the permanent presence of the police on the campus but their inability to maintain law and order. But some of the teachers feel that the university should set up its own internal security and discipline enforcing system primarily to keep outsiders off its premises and to keep the peace. But over the years the University has moved in the other direction. The proctorial system, which functioned quite well before, was abolished in the seventies. Now there are students advisers who can do no more than advise.

When the University fails to enforce discipline, it tacitly encourages violence, observed Dr Zafar Zaidi. “And there are numerous instances when a disciplinary measure has been decided upon but never implemented”, he said.

One fact emerged clearly from my discussions with a large number of teachers: an overwhelming majority of students — 96 – 97 per cent — is interested in studying and is not prone to violence. It is the minority of activists with clearcut political leanings that creates trouble.

Mr Shameem Akhtar, a University teacher, feels that the silent majority can be mobilised in favour of non-violence.

Dr Ilyas said that the majority displays an attitude of acquiescence which must be seen in the context of the conditions in which it has to study. The students have pent up grievances. When a small group resorts to violence, the others feel sympathetic since they share its resentment against the administration.

All teachers complained of overcrowding in institutions. The Karachi University, which has 11,000 students on its rolls, was designed for 3,000. There are other problems too — like the inadequate library, research, laboratory and sport facilities and the overall paucity of funds.

Since students are an organised and educated group, political parties find them a readily available reserve to draw workers from and to create a popular power base. That funds are provided to student groups by political parties is now a well-known fact. With the students so closely linked with polity all the intolerance, ethnic divisiveness and socio-political polarisation we see around us have come to be reflected in students politics.

As one University professor succinctly put it, “When you have arms flowing freely in the country, how can you stop them from entering the campus”.

When outside conflicts are foisted on the University, the teachers feel helpless to counter them. Dr Zafar Zaidi gave the example of the hostels, which he described as a major source of violence.

He said a large number of “nonstudents” traditionally occupy the hostels. They store arms there and use force freely to have their way.

Dr Zaidi categorically stated that hostels must be closed down if there is to be peace on the campus. Why should students, most of whom live in Karachi, need hostel accommodation, he asked. After all Karachi University is not Aligarh, he added.

Management

 Even others who are in favour of retaining the hostels emphasised the need for better management. An ex-provost recalled how he conducted clean-ups and expelled outsiders to keep the hostels free of non-student occupants who are the real source of trouble. He held external intervention responsible for the university’s law and order problem.

Other factors have also contributed to the malaise of the Karachi University. One of them is the failure of the academic community to develop a culture of dissent.

Mr Shameem Akhtar said, “Political activism should certainly be discouraged and on no account should the campus be made the centre of party politics. But that should not mean that students should be denied the right to debate national issues or hold different opinions. Dissent should not be banned but its limits and form determined”.

Regrettably the teachers and the administration have not played the role they could have in promoting healthier values and attitudes in the students.

All the teachers I talked to said that by and large the students still respect the teachers — at least those who are competent and acquit themselves well in the class-room.

But a teacher also connected with the administration complained that most teachers distance themselves from students’ problems regarding them as the administration’s headache. Others pointed to a general lack of interest in academic pursuits in the teachers’ community, its indifference towards basic issues of concern to its members, failure to speak up on matters related to education and an overly keen interest in personal monetary gains, promotions, grades and status.

The teachers, however, attributed their inability to exert moral pressure to the appalling teacher-pupil ratio — 11,000 students to 400 teachers of which around 50 are at any given pcint of time on sabbatical. Combined with the frequent interruptions, this is hardly conducive to a healthy teacher-student relationship.

Matters have been made more complex by the role of the University Administration. In the first place it lacks the autonomy which is essential for it to act effectively. The Vice-Chancellor is a nominee of the Government, unlike days when he was elected by the representative bodies of the University.

Dr Ilyas complained that the college principal enjoys little authority. He cannot take disciplinary action against a student, his financial powers are limited and he has no say in the appointment and transfer of the teachers.

Dr Ilyas resigned from his post not because of “students’ problems”, he emphatically declared. But because he was not given the authority he had been demanding.

One teacher said that the Vice- Chancellor’s powers have been so seriously curtailed that he has no say in university affairs.

“Gone are the days when the V.C. could take a stand vis-a-vis the Government. Dr Mahmud Husain was the last V.C. to have resigned on grounds of principle. He was known to have told off Mr Jatoi and Mr Payar Ali Allana when he disagreed with them. That is why his opinions carried weight,” she says.

This was somewhat confirmed by Dr Jamil Jalibi, Vice-Chancellor, in a television programme when he disclosed that he had opposed the ban on the unions. But more serious than the curtailment of the V.C’s powers are the implications of his mode of appointment for the university administration’s policies.

One very frequently hears complaints about the University administration’s partisanship. It has often been alleged that those in authority are biased and give protection and support to students belonging to the party which enjoys the favours of the Establishment.

There have been instances of a breach of discipline by students and teachers wno are members of one group and no action has been taken against them. But others with a more liberal and progressive bent of mind have been branded leftists and penalised.

 Dr Zafar Arif was mentioned again and again to support this contention. Another instance cited was the control one group has been allowed to exercise over key sectors such as the University transport and the hostels.

This perceived lack of evenhandedness has created a lot of resentment and heart-burning in the university and colleges. But some teachers feel that the present administration is not to be blamed.

It has been saddled with a situation in which some groups have enjoyed special privileges and influence for years and to change the status quo in the normal course is virtually impossible.

The ban on students’ union is held to be another factor in the growing violence on the campuses. I did not meet a single academic who supported the ban on the unions — but for different reasons.

Unions

One teacher pointed out that it is a misconception to believe that there was no violence when unions functioned and that peace would be restored were unions to be revived. But he nevertheless favoured unions because they provided necessary political training to students.

However, many people attribute the growth of ethnic violence to the ban on unions. The ethnic-oriented parties have existed for decades. But they were mainly confined to the mess, observed Dr Zafar Zaidi. That was understandable because people from different regions have different eating habits. But in academic life and student activities ethnic origins did not matter — at least not until lately.

Many of these differences were absorbed by the unions which comprised boys and girls of different backgrounds but similar sociopolitical outlook. Now that unions do not exist, ethnicity has emerged as a major force on the campuses.

Ethnic tensions on the campus have been further accentuated by three other factors. These are: first, the general environment in the country which has seen an upsurge of regional conflicts in the eight years of Martial Law when the political process was suspended; secondly, the demographic composition of Karachi’s population, which is automatically reflected in the university; and thirdly, the inflow of students from outside Sind, many of whom could not have been admitted in normal course under the University’s admission policy.

Ethnic polarisation is deepening and has conversely contributed to the increase in violence on the campus.

Where will this lead to? When will normal academic routine be restored on the campus? There are no easy answers to these questions. The solutions people offered were longterm ones — more facilities for studies and research, more funds for extracurricular activities for students, more powers for the V.C. and a greater role for parents.

But what of the present? There seems to be a crisis of confidence between the students and the University administration. How this will be resolved is not clear.

Source Dawn 28 Feb 1986