Why students are on the roads again

Zaighum Abbas explains the sequence of events which led to the student protests last week

Why students are on the roads again
Students are once again on the roads protesting against online classes and examinations. The recent protests were sparked by the deteriorating online education system that has taken a heavy toll on students and faculty alike. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, private and public education systems had to abruptly shift to online teaching methods with entirely no preparation. Teachers using online softwares and technology were as clueless as their students. Most universities shifting to the online system did no preparation, making it difficult for students to adjust to the new mode of learning. Moreover, the stark digital divide across the country made it extremely difficult for students in the peripheries to learn anything during this period. Since March last year, students have been complaining about the falling standards of education despite paying astronomical amounts of fee and incurring huge expenditures. From April till August last year, students continuously protested the hikes in semester fees and demanded that tuition fees be reduced as they were not using university facilities including hostels, transport and laboratories. The protests, as usual, fell on deaf ears.

From Islamabad to Lahore and Karachi, the past week saw a series of protests which often turned into ugly scenes of confrontation with university authorities and the police. The primary demand of the students was to revoke the in-person physical exams announced by some private universities. Students maintained that if the entire semester was taught online—which according to them was not proper in the first place—the universities should also conduct the examinations online. Students enrolled in private universities were of the view that the insistence on physical exams on campus was a strictly financial calculation for the private education system. They maintained that it was easier to fail a significant proportion of the students in physical exams by ensuring strict proctorial standards. The logic behind this is that private universities could get an extra year’s fee from the students.

An alternative view on this issue points out that students are demanding online examinations because it is easier to cheat in these exams. This, however, is a weak argument given that the education imparted through the online system was of extremely poor quality and did not prepare the students well for a competitive evaluation. The blame of cheating also represents failure on part of university authorities which have not been able to come up with a viable online evaluation system during the pandemic. It is worth pointing out that some of the most prestigious international exams are conducted online with zero chances of cheating and maximum transparency. University authorities blaming students for cheating in online exams is, in fact, their own failure.
The blame of cheating represents failure on part of university authorities which have not been able to come up with a viable online evaluation system during the pandemic

When universities reopened on February 1 after a long hiatus due to the second wave of coronavirus, anxieties of students grew as to what their educational future holds. Spontaneous protests erupted in Lahore and Islamabad, indicating the growing concern against the online examination system across the country.

Security guards at UCP (a private university owned by a prominent business tycoon), launched a brutal crackdown outside its campus where students were camped and were protesting against online exams. As many as 36 students were rounded up, some of them beaten and injured. Not a single case was registered against the students at that time, yet flouting all legal requirements, the police arrested these students and jailed them. FIRs were registered later.

As the students’ response against the online exams grew stronger, the police arrested more students, notably the ones who were leading these protests. One of them was Zubair Siddiqi of Progressive Students Collective. He was arrested despite securing pre-arrest bail. Lawyers representing him filed a habeas petition at Lahore High Court. The hearing of the habeas petition at the court suggested that police were clueless as to why they had arrested peaceful students. Some students also pointed out that police had been under immense pressure from the business tycoons who own these private universities and colleges and were therefore acting recklessly on their directions. Human Rights organization Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the arrest of the students, saying on its Twitter handle that, “peaceful protest is a human right.”

These recent events are symptoms of a longstanding issue: the absence of representative bodies on campuses and the denial of the right to unionize in universities. Imagine students having their own representative body in every campus which is taken onboard by the administration while taking important decisions pertaining to their future. It seems impossible because those who wield real power in this country don’t want a new base of leadership emerging. They know that this new base will eventually become a threat to the status quo. Come election, every party would invoke youth and students as their main pillar and strength, but when it comes to empowering the students and cultivating a next generation of leadership, these parties will stick to their undemocratic, feudal and elitist core. The structures of political parties have become so alienated that they are unable to feel the pulse of students right now.

The last three generations of students in this country have been deprived of the right to unionize. Worse still, what they have been fed through a pliable media and a propagandist curriculum is exactly the opposite. An overwhelming majority of students believe that their only responsibility is to get education and pursue a fulfilling career. What is happening in society and the larger socio-economic and political questions are not their concerns; a dangerous flaw in state-citizen relationship.

The writer is a professor