At the end of this past month, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) issued a very perturbing circular instructing all degree-awarding academic institutions to “remain vigilant and forestall any activity that in any manner challenge(s) the ideology and principles of Pakistan, and/or perspective of the Government of Pakistan thereof”.
Apparently, the HEC directive was instigated by the recent controversy unleashed at a model UN event organised by the Faculty of Management Sciences at Islamabad’s International Islamic University (IIU). At the Global Village event, which aims to highlight cultures of different countries around the world, some students had put up a stall for Israel. Putting up an Israeli stall was apparently protested by the Islami Jamiat-e-Taliba, as well as attaches from the Iranian and Palestinian missions, who were attending this event.
Given this backlash, the IIU has rushed to suspend the dean of the faculty concerned and its student adviser, who were responsible for organising the model UN event, while distancing itself from the incident by putting out a statement that it was only a few students, who had organised the stall, without knowledge or permission of university officials. Not content with these steps, however, the HEC also jumped into the fray and issued the abovementioned directive.
Despite its lofty aim of “facilitating institutes of higher learning to serve as an engine of growth for the socio-economic development of Pakistan”, the HEC’s own performance leaves much to be desired. It has failed to ensure a decent level of higher education and research across academic institutions of the country.
Instead of concerning itself with aiming to improve the academic standards of higher education, the HEC has issued a directive that aims to institute an indeterminate ideological line of conforming with “the principles of Pakistan”. What are the ideological principles of Pakistan, one may ask, or that of any other nation in the world? Students of political science, international relations or history would be hard pressed to provide a definitive answer to such a question. Most would concur that notions like ideology are amorphous at best, and should be given space enough to evolve with changing times or else they will fall victim to myopia and can be easily hijacked by totalitarian tendencies. Instead of encouraging academic institutions to encourage creativity and critical analysis to grapple with the ongoing radicalisation within our society, the HEC has chosen to exhibit nothing short of an authoritarian mindset that plagues decision-making in our country.
The HEC’s move is also puzzling given that the Prime Minister’s Office, just two days after the HEC directive was issued, called on the body to amend school, college and university curriculum to “promote the appreciation of the vital necessity of constitutional democracy” and to help deepen the understanding of the “constitutional democratic process and pluralism” in international and national contexts. How the HEC aims to achieve these objectives, while at the same time, remaining vigilant so as to forestall any activity allegedly challenging not only the “ideology” of Pakistan, but also the perspective of the government of Pakistan (which is in power at the time) remains an absolute riddle.
It is encouraging to see educationists, activists and prominent academics raising their voice against the HEC’s attempts at stifling debate and discourse in the country’s universities. For, it is only through exposure to different perspectives that we can educate critical thinkers, which is what our country really needs. One thus hopes that the widespread disgruntlement will compel the government to get the HEC’s circular withdrawn as soon as possible.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2014.
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