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From dreams to disadvantage: why minority students demand more seats

Govt-allocated 2% higher-education quota for K-P's minority students is not enough

By Asad Zia |
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PUBLISHED June 04, 2023

Twenty years old Sonia Iqbal and her sister Naila, 23, belong to the Christian community and are the sole breadwinners for their family of five. They live in a two-room rented house in Lalazar Colony, Peshawar. Their father who was a car painter had an accident in 2018, after which he could no longer work to help pay for their education expenses.

He tried his best to help the situation by contacting the education department to request free admission or a scholarship for his daughter, but in vain. Sonia wanted to serve her community as a doctor, but she and her sister eventually had to drop out of school and support their family, as they couldn’t afford the Rs 7,000 monthly and Rs 15,000 admission fee for college.

“I work as a saleswoman in a garment store on University Road, while my sister works at a beauty salon,” says Sonia, explaining how they were unable to pursue higher education because of financial constraints.

Rozeena Masih works as a peon at Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University, Peshawar, and her university-going daughter quit education in the third semester because they were unable to pay the fee.

“University education is too expensive, and with limited income, we cannot afford it for our children,” says Rozeena who has four children, and her husband is paralysed and bedridden since 15 years. “My salary is not enough to meet our daily needs and my husband’s medical expense. My three daughters have completed their bachelor degrees online from Allama Iqbal Open University, but higher education remains a dream. Since our children have a low-standard school education, it is difficult for them to compete for scholarships.”

Sonia and Rozeena’s stories highlight the urgent need to address the barriers faced by minorities in accessing higher education. Millions of young Pakistanis from minorities cannot access higher education, despite the two percent quota allocated to them by the Federal and Provincial governments.

Jameel Nelson, who has a BA degree, is unable to secure a job due to tough competition in the job market and his low qualification. He wants to study further and qualify for a reputable post, but the low quota for minorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is a barrier to pursue higher education.

“We live in a three-room house with our two uncles and their families,” says Nelson. “My parents and three siblings share one room. Both my parents work, but their income is not enough for six peoples’ living expenses in the current inflation. Their expectations are totally shattered as I am not yet able to assist in their financial burden.”

The Christian community contributes its share for development and progress of the country as Pakistani citizens, yet their basic rights are not guaranteed, points out Nelson’s 45-year-old mother, Farzana Bashir, who is a sweeper in the Health Department.

“One of my daughters has done her Master’s in English literature from the University of Peshawar,” she says. “A concession was made for the first semester fee, but we took loans and paid for the other semesters. It was difficult because my salary is Rs26,000 and my husband’s income varies as he is a tailor.”

Up until the mid-80s, members of the Christian community and other minorities in Pakistan served as principals, teachers, and secretarial staff in the best schools and offices as they were well-educated, disciplined and dedicated in their profession. Over the years, as our society became polar and intolerant, the crème de la crème of minorities migrated to other countries because of marginalisation issues such as unacceptance, religious prejudices and suppression, and those who stayed back were uneducated or little educated.

Since access to quality education is limited to those who can afford it, those from disadvantaged backgrounds face additional challenges because of limited income. As a result minorities have been stuck in menial jobs for years, unable to find white collar jobs, let alone top positions in public and private sectors. Their access to higher education is barred not just because of policy-making, but also the vicious cycle that feeds on them.

In May, 2021, the KP government approved a two percent admission quota for minority candidates in public sector universities across the province, while the HE, Archives and Libraries Department issued a formal notification stating that the quota policy would be adopted in all public sector universities. Previously, the quota for minority students was limited to medical and engineering colleges, but with the recent approval, the seats have been extended to all public-sector universities in KP.

Yet, 50,000 Christians and other minorities in KP confront significant obstacles such as poverty, and lack of educational qualifications, while the low quota allocated to them limits them from college and university admission. This puts the minority youth at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to finding jobs and improving their lives.

The Minorities’ Challenges report 2021 by the Minority Rights Group and Khwendo Kor, a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, shows that lack of education at different levels is the biggest reason behind the plight of minorities in Peshawar. Earning a pitiful income, they never get to progress or rise in their socio-economic status, and the mindset that their children will also work as sweepers and peons, discourages them to invest in their children’s education, and gradually the significance of education is a lost cause for them.

“Due to inferior school education, minority youth lack the skills needed to qualify for university admission,” explains Haroon Sarab Diyal, a religious leader from KP who has struggled for the past 13 years for fair allocation of reserved minority seats in educational institutions. “As they can’t compete with the majority, they lag behind and it leads to depression and dissatisfaction among them. For those who do qualify, the low quota is a barrier because the two percent seats are not enough. Without higher education, they are unable to compete on an equal footing with their peers.”

Diyal believes that the government should fairly and transparently increase educational quotas for minorities from two to five percent and make it mandatory for all institutions, including professional colleges to admit minority students. Gorpal Singh, a rights activist and community elder endorses his view, emphasising that the allocated two percent quota is too low considering the thousands of Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Kalash students in KP.

While there is no explicit provision in the constitution for free higher education for all citizens, there are government initiatives and programmes aimed at providing scholarships and financial assistance to students, including minorities, for pursuing higher education. However, these initiatives may not cover the entire cost of higher education, and students may still have to bear certain expenses.

Radesh Singh Tony, a religious rights activist and a Sikh community elder in KP points out that at the time of elections, promises are made to secure the social, religious, and educational rights of minorities, but after elections, the promises are forgotten.

“Due to their unsatisfactory educational qualifications, minority students are often considered ineligible for the prescribed quota, and those seats are filled by whoever qualifies,” he says. “There are numerous issues in our day to day lives as religious minorities, and it is crucial to facilitate us in acquiring higher education so we can secure reputable jobs in the society and transform our lives.”

Another religious leader and social activist, Radesh Kumar reiterates that the increase in the quota for minorities to five percent across all educational institutions is the only way to improve their living standard. “As their fundamental human right, education should be accessible to all, regardless of social or religious background,” he says.

While Diyal resolves to continue the quota struggle to eradicate the poverty that plagues these communities, Qamar Naseem, who is a human rights activist and programme manager at Blue Veins, a women’s health advocacy group in KP, sums up the issue of allocation of a five percent higher education quota for minorities.

“It is not only a matter of inclusivity, but a crucial step towards empowerment,” says Naseem. “We should strive to dismantle barriers that have historically hindered their progress. This proactive approach will not only enable talented individuals to thrive academically, it will empower them to contribute their skills and perspectives to the overall development of the nation. It is about addressing past injustices and a strategic investment in the future of Pakistan.”

Asad Zia is a freelance journalist based in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer