The Karachi University Teachers Society (KUTS) took to the streets yesterday to protest the controversial Sindh Universities Law Amendment Bill, 2018. The amendment Bill was passed on March 9, 2018. Protesters marched from Arts Lobby to Azadi Chowk to express their dissatisfaction with the Bill. Students and teachers alike chanted various slogans including:
‘We do not accept the black law’
‘Let universities be independent’
‘No compromise on the autonomy of the university’
However, the amendment bill itself isn’t fresh news. The Sindh government originally passed the Sindh Universities Act in 2013 and it is since then being resisted by university administration and students alike. The original bill enhanced the provincial government’s powers in the matters of universities. For instance, the Act took powers away from the university syndicate to appoint key offices at the universities. These included the registrar, financial registrar, controller of examination, chief accountant, resident auditor, bursar, and finance director. According to the Act, the Sindh Governor was made in charge of these appointments. Unsurprisingly, this caused an uproar as the government encroached upon the rights of Sindh Universities to carry out autonomous operations. Since 2013, the various education-related bodies such as KUTS and the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (Fapuasa) have been demanding changes to the problematic clauses in the Act.
So, why has amendment caused an uproar in 2018?
The Sindh Assembly passed an amended version of the Act amidst great resistance from opposition parties. These included Pak Sarzameen Party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, and Pakistan Muslim League-Functional. There was a walkout by opposition lawmakers and the bill was passed without a majority present. The particular clause that became the cause of the protest yesterday was the change in office appointment powers. Now, the Chief Minister has taken responsibility for appointing the key offices mentioned earlier. This basically means that instead of pacifying protesters, the Sindh Government has just strengthened their grip on the 2013 Bill by handing powers to a higher office of the CM. Moreover, what’s worse is that Sindh Chief Minister, Murad Ali Shah on January 3, 2018, had actually assured Fapuasa President, Prof Naimatullah Laghari that the 2018 Bill will address previously raised concerns of students and teachers since 2013. The protest a day ago was a condemnation of this breach of assurance. It was also a statement to call for change in the bill.
What are the possible repercussions of the Bill?
The 2018 Bill gives greater control to the Sindh Government, which is problematic given the corruption level in politics. The Sindh Budget had an admirable increase in education spending by 24% for the year 2017-18. A mere increase, however, does not translate into positive change. Education institutes are most equipped with the technical know-how to operate a university best. Not the Chief Minister. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that Pakistani education system is already plagued with bribery, both at administrative and student levels. Teachers are sometimes appointed through bribery and students also gain admission by paying off admission officers. In this environment giving free reign to politicians basically means legalizing this state of affairs. Nepotism will become the norm, which will be helpful to no one.
Universities are supposed to be hubs of learning. Students gain knowledge and hold active debates on the state on the socio-political state of the country as well. The Bill is just the start of regulating knowledge dissemination at public universities. Freethinkers will face more restrictions than ever and a stringent, jingoistic discourse will be propagated at the university level as well. With the government regulating school curriculums already, there is less room for ideas to develop. Particularly ideas that don’t feed a political agenda, that is. So, this measure is problematic on all levels.
Opposition leaders have vowed to challenge the Bill. While it is commendable that they have opted to do so, as civil society we must be careful that this cause doesn’t get lost in the humdrum of political feuds. Universities must be kept autonomous for an optimum educational experience. We must stand in solidarity with the students in Sindh and demand more from the provincial governments.