This past month has seen a drastic increase in student political activity all across the country, along with seeing instances of students clashing with police and university administrations. According to eyewitnesses, Police baton-charged students and arrested them in scores and today copies of First Information Reports (FIRs) against students surfaced on social media.
Massive protests were held by students of National University of Modern Languages (NUML), PMAS-Agricultural University, University of Management Technology (UMT). Interestingly, in recent history, this is the first time that students from private universities have also been politically active, staging sit-ins and protests against their universities, this included students from the University of Central Punjab (UCP) and Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
Some universities had given calls of on-campus exams which sparked a spontaneous wave of protests. Students are arguing that not only does the decision neglects the potential dangers to students’ health by calling the entire student body on campus, but it also puts students and their families under a financial strain to pay for hostels and transport during a time when 17.07 million Pakistani households have seen a rapid decrease in household incomes.
Students have been protesting and clashing with authorities over what they claim are unilateral decisions that put their future and education at risk. All this while, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the body responsible has been awfully quiet. The last directives the HEC issued for universities was on September 2nd of 2020. Nearly 4 months later, as a new academic semester is about to start in public universities, students are still unsure of how this semester will pan out.
The decision-making bodies have also been very slow in monitoring the situation and issuing effective guidelines. The Inter-Provincial Education Ministers Conference (IPEMC) and the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) held meetings throughout January to review the COVID-19 situation and decide whether to reopen educational institutions in Pakistan as scheduled. However, the decision on university campuses came 4 days before 1st February, the proposed date for hybrid campus reopening.
In this vacuum left by the national regulatory body, universities have been pushed to make decisions in real-time, responding to situation and circumstances created by the pandemic. The September directives by the HEC were less of a directive and more so of an outline to corona safety, leaving much of the difficult decision making on the universities. The HEC guidelines, issued on September 2, read, “Hostel accommodation may be managed in accordance with the NCOC guidelines. Expected students’ density may range from 30%-50% of the designed capacity.”
2nd September guidelines also allow for the capacity range to vary according to varsities on the basis of facilities. The policy directs universities to disinfect regularly, create a separate authority for campus reopening, and set up a mechanism for contact tracing of individuals to be used in cases of infections on campus. Following these guidelines, the policy states that “the reopening plan for universities will follow from the above directives, especially the density thresholds relative to campus infrastructure, and success in implementing the safety protocols.”
Even today as the HEC released a press statement, they toed the same line. The press release read, “HEC already allowed universities to use their discretion to conduct exams, either on-campus or online as long as the chosen mode provides a fair assessment of students’ performance.”
Sources told The Correspondent that the HEC officials told universities that they have the full prerogative to conduct exams as they prefer (online or on-campus) but the HEC would refuse to accredit certain degrees if online exams are conducted for them. In such a scenario the HEC has also put these institutions between a rock and a hard place by distancing itself from the entire situation by informing students that the HEC has allowed universities to conduct online exams and then by informing the varsities that the only way their degrees would have any validity is by conducting exams on-campus.
Furthermore, it puts the burden on the educational institutes to assess their own “exam readiness”, an assessment of the varsity’s capabilities to conduct online exams successfully. In an education system where universities do not have access to funds and such assessment and subsequent policy would require hiring educational experts, the HEC has more or less abandoned students on the mercy of the university administrations making a right decision without much of an oversight. Given that students have no representation in varsity decision making bodies, the situation has only worked to deepen the trust deficit between students and administration. HEC needs to step up to the occasion and guide universities in a time when institutions do not have the capacity to make efficient decisions to safeguard the interests of students.