The rankings of institutions, whether done by the national agencies or international newspapers, do not measure a university’s health. The number of publications or patents, the presence of a library or two do not tell the whole story. Whether we celebrate how many of our universities have made it to the top 1,000 or 10,000, the reality is that our institutions as a whole are facing serious challenges. With limited funding for research, stagnant salaries of staff, increased cost that the students have to bear and a high population pressure, all have a negative influence on the health of our universities. Furthermore, the university leadership that at times is out of touch with academia or research and a research staff who at times demonstrate the lack of strong moral and ethical compass add to the woes of our institutions.
While these problems are real, they are neither unique to Pakistan, nor are they fundamentally insolvable. A bigger problem, however, is the environment on our campuses. The lack of debate and an honest but respectful discussion of ideas and viewpoints, has given rise to a stifling environment. I personally know professors who are scared to discuss history, lest it offend certain groups. Students are reluctant to bring up topics of high intellectual merit for the fear of strong repercussions. In this challenging environment, the recent move by Karachi University to share the data of the students with intelligence agencies is hardly a step in the right direction.
There is little doubt that our universities have, in their midst, those who wish us harm and there is no question that all of us need to do our bit in ensuring a safe, stable and prosperous country. However, sharing personal data of students with agencies is deeply problematic and of little practical value. In fact, it is likely to further create an environment of mistrust, anxiety and curtail conversations on campus that are essential to critical thinking and constructive solutions. The data collected by the universities is not indicative of how a person may behave. Records of what one reads or what classes one enrolls in, is neither the business of the state, nor any indication of hostile thoughts. On the other hand, this will add to student anxiety, will further curtail conversations among students and teachers on important topics and promote a behaviour of spying on one another. There is also a strong chance that such data will be used to settle old scores and marginalise specific groups. On our campuses, student engagement with important issues facing the nation is already limited, and under the watchful eye of the big brother, it will stifle debate, creativity and discussion.
There are lessons from history and other countries that are also important here. Similar activities, including in the US through the Patriot Act, led to general anxiety and distrust, but provided no valuable intelligence. Eventually, the programme was scrapped. By invading the privacy of students, we are only going down a path that has been proved to be useless at other places.
Universities are unique in a way that they are both a microcosm of society, but also a bubble in which students can talk about abstract concepts, make grand plans and work alongside those who are different from you. This bubble is the very basis of visionary solutions. Student interactions transcend social barriers of economics, colour, ethnicity and gender. The ability to shape the future comes from independence in thought and freedom of discussion. The rise in extremism on our campuses is best fought by a reflection on why our curriculum does not teach tolerance and understanding, why we fail to appreciate the value of human rights and why we cannot disagree with one another with dignity and respect.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2017.