A wave of student protests against on-campus exams has been sweeping across the country since last week. Social media for the last few weeks has been abuzz with the students’ demand “#StudentsRejectOnCampusExams”, which has also been a top trend on Twitter for the last two weeks.
The series of protests started with a spontaneous call by a group of students on social media. A group of these students decided to organise a protest physically in Islamabad on 21 January. A demonstration was held in the capital of Pakistan, in which hundreds of students from various universities of Islamabad participated. Since then, these protests have spread across all the major cities of Pakistan: Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Multan, DG Khan, Faisalabad and many more.
The peaceful student protests were met with brutal state and the university administration repression in a few places. Despite all the odds and use of force against them, the students have been successful in forcing the administration of some universities to accept their demand, but many university administrations are still resisting and the students there are continuing their protests.
The spark was lit when the administration of various universities decided to hold on-campus examinations upon the reopening of universities on 1 February. This caused huge unrest among students, who took to social media to raise their concerns. The protesting students asserted that the universities in Pakistan had administered them online classes for the whole of the last semester. They had received their full fees for this purpose but provided the students with no facilities like internet access, electricity, computers/laptops etc. The quality of education remained extremely poor during online classes, as the educational institutions had not bothered to take any measures to impart the necessary skills to their teaching staff and devise modern methods for the purpose. No money was spent on buying teaching software or any other means for conducting classes, and teachers were relying on the limited free options available, mostly using WhatsApp to take classes by voice, or even text messages. On the other hand, universities increased their tuition fees to unprecedented levels, which were already very high. Although university's expenditures were reduced as students were not using campus facilities, and teachers’ pay has been cut, fees for the students skyrocketed during the pandemic with no regulation by the government.
A large number of students that came from remote areas could not attend even these poor-quality online classes due to the unavailability of internet and electricity in major parts of Pakistan.
The students assert that, given they were taught online, holding exams on-campus doesn't make any sense. Students fear that universities will deliberately fail most of the students in these exams, which will force them to repay for the whole semester again, which will put a huge burden on the shoulders of their impoverished parents, who have been badly affected by the pandemic. Some of the students’ slogans are: “when classes were on zoom, why the exams in the room?” and “when classes were on Meet, why exams on sheet?” The students also took to social media to vent their anger.
Hundreds of students from the National University of Modern Languages (NUML) staged a demonstration on 21 January. They were joined by students of Arid Agriculture University. Students from other universities also joined them later on. It has been over a week, but the students in Islamabad have been staging protests almost every day in big numbers for their demands.
Students staged a day-long sit-in demonstration on a main highway and refused to end their demonstrations until their demands were met.
After that, the district administration unleashed the police force on the peaceful students. Police fired teargas shells and brutally baton-charged students, including female students.
Many students were arrested and shifted to different police stations of the federal capital, from where they were later released.
Even this brutal state repression could not demoralise students, and as a result they formed a Students Rights’ Committee, comprising students from various universities on the initiative of the comrades of the PYA, who played a key role in carrying this struggle forward. This committee gave a call to protest in front of the Higher Education Commission (HEC): a higher education regulatory body in Pakistan. More than 100 student representatives gathered in front of the HEC head office, situated right in the heart of the federal capital, and staged a day-long protest. They were assured that their demands would be considered in the upcoming meeting of the body.
The students have been staging protests outside the HEC head office consistently. They have vowed not to leave until a notification confirming the cancellation of campus exams is issued.
Days after the initial protest, hundreds of students from both private and public sector universities in Lahore, the provincial capital of the largest province in Punjab, also gathered outside Lahore Press Club (LPC) to press their demands and later marched towards Governor House on 21 January. The Governor of Punjab Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, a former Labour MP in British Parliament, is officially the chancellor of all the provincially chartered universities of Punjab.
It was also a spontaneous uprising: the call started on social media, inspired by the demonstration in Islamabad.
Police resorted to baton charging these protestors. They managed to disperse them through the use of force. However, the student movement did not die down.
The students returned in even larger numbers and were even more determined the next day. A demonstration was held outside the University of Management and Technology (UMT). The students did not give up their day-long protest, and the police used baton charges and tear gas to disperse them. However, they entered the UMT campus and surrounded the vice-chancellor’s office by overwhelming the security. They left after an official notification rejecting on-campus exams was issued.
It was a huge victory, which raised their spirits, and students vowed to carry this struggle to other universities in the city. In an excellent show of cross-campus solidarity, the next day on 26 January, over 1,000 students gathered outside the University of Central Punjab (UCP), another private university owned by a media tycoon, private sector education mogul and former Lahore Mayor, Mian Amir. University security guards unleashed brutal force on peaceful students but were unsuccessful in dispersing them. The students announced that they won’t budge until their demands are accepted, come what may.
Later, when the students did not leave for the whole day and showed their resolve to stay overnight, a heavy contingent of police armed with riot-gear, batons and tear gas shells was called in. The university and district administration resorted to dirty tactics to malign the peaceful protestors. A few provocateurs in the guise as students were sent into the demonstration. They started pelting the university security and police with stones, and later set the university gate on fire. This provided the police with an excuse to resort to the brutal use of force to crush them.
Police acting as the private militia of Mian Amir Mehmood, the university owner, fired tear gas shells and baton-charged the students. Many were injured, and a few were left with fractures. One of the students, Shah Jahan, received serious injuries. He was admitted to an ICU in a critical condition and is fighting for his life. The police have arrested at least 37 students and registered cases against 500. The next day, they were presented before a court in a prison van and kept in this cage-like van throughout the day. In the evening, minutes before the court timings were about to run over, case proceedings in the absence of the students were held. They were handed over to police on physical remand for three days.
The vindictive and suppressive measures against the UCP protestors are not over yet. The university administration has been sending rustication letters to dozens of students and threatening notices to hundreds. All those rusticated from the university will not get their fees back and the precious income of their families invested in higher education of their children will be lost in the accounts of these university owners.
The PYA played a critical role in both these demonstrations. Our comrades made speeches, raised slogans and held discussions.
The students of UCP have announced another protest on Thursday 28 January against this repression. Students from other universities in Lahore have also announced plans to organise protests on the issue.
The students of Emerson College, and BZU University-affiliated colleges, held a demonstration in Multan, another major city 300km from Lahore.
A massive rally was held. The protest was mainly organised and led by PYA comrades in the city. The students were successful as their demands were met a day later.
Over 4,000 students from Ghazi University, Mir Chakar University and affiliated colleges staged a protest in DG Khan, another major city in South Punjab.
The protest lasted for over 48 hours. On the first day, a sit-in was held on a main inter-provincial highway, which was blocked by students. When the students were not heard, the next day they marched throughout the city and staged a sit-in demonstration outside the VC’s house. A notification for online exams was issued: a triumph of the students’ protest.
PYA members played a leading role. It was the best-organised protest of the recent wave of the student movement. Students established three committees: an organising committee, a security committee for female participants and a negotiations committee. The committees were made on PYA’s recommendations and our members were part of it.
The students after their victory also expressed solidarity against state repression against UCP students. They not only released video messages but announced plans to join the protests in Lahore physically if needed.
A similar protest was held in Peshawar University, the largest public sector university in Peshawar, the capital of KPK province, in front of the VC office on the initiative of common students.
Comrades of the PYA not only intervened in the protest but also moved a suggestion to form an action committee to carry this protest forward. The university administration did not pay heed to students’ demands, after which they decided to shift their protest in front of the Peshawar Press Club.
Peshawar University has a rich history of student politics and a number of students’ organisations of every tendency are present on campus. However, they all have degenerated over the past period. They are now nothing more than a bunch of corrupt souls involved in extortion from nearby shops and the university canteen; renting out hostel rooms; fighting for shares in different contracts and similar looting, all in collusion with the university administration and local politicians.
The common students have rejected these so-called student organisations and often raise their demands on burning issues on their own. The same happened over the issue of on-campus examination. These organisations, from so-called left to right, collectively held a separate rally against the common students who were protesting in front of the press club. By openly acting against the students, we clearly see how rotten these traditional organisations are.
Continuous protests of common students met with success when the university administration announced to hold online examinations.
Students held protests against on-campus examinations in other parts of the country like Karachi, the capital of Sindh province; Faisalabad, a major city in Punjab, 100km from Lahore; Sahiwal, another city 150 km from Lahore and others.
The Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) has played a key role in these protests. Our comrades in each protest and demonstration intervened with a revolutionary spirit. They not only asserted the need for organising the students but also armed them with correct slogans. Our members played a leading role in chalking out a Students’ Charter of Demands, aligned with the PYA’s manifesto, but were also successful in the establishment of student committees. PYA members were given leading positions in all committees representing hundreds of students. In fact, the PYA initiated and organised this process in some cities.
The pathetic and indifferent role of the Pakistan Government could be also seen in this situation. They did not listen to the students’ demands. When the pressure mounted, the Federal Education Minister - rather than issuing clear instructions to admit the students' demands - opted to shift the ball to universities’ court to decide for themselves, according to their capacity.
Student movement on verge of explosion
The recent students’ backlash was a spontaneous explosion against decades-long repression and exploitation. Anger has been piling up against measures depriving students of accessible quality education, including privatisations, fee hikes, a lack of hostels, a lack of transport facilities, unemployment, sexual harassment on campuses and other issues.
Student unions have been banned in Pakistan since 1984. Students have no platform to voice their concerns. All the decisions in universities are made by the administration and imposed on poor students. Exorbitant fees are being extracted in the name of education, while the quality of education and job prospects have sharply declined over the years, reaching the lowest depths in its history. Depriving students of their fundamental democratic rights is also a major reason for frustration among them, as the universities resemble prisons, where students are continuously policed through security guards and other administrative measures. Any smaller gatherings of students are strictly discouraged and new moral codes are imposed on a regular basis to coerce the students and criminalise their social activities. Any voice of dissent is brutally crushed by the university administration or through goons in the guise of fundamentalist organisations, which are especially propped up for this purpose.
But this new movement has shown what is to come in the next period: the students are beginning to move. These protests were the students’ own initiative, outside traditional student organisations linked to rotten political parties. These protests proved that such organisations are not only irrelevant now but also anti-student. At many demonstrations, they were exposed as an extension of the administration and state rather than their fellows.
The recent wave is just a reflection of students’ anger, which has been brewing for decades. This is just the beginning of the beginning.
On the surface, the students’ opposition against the decision to hold on-campus examination may seem a petty issue. However, it has a background where students in Pakistan were left out of any decision making regarding their education during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. The decision to shut down universities, re-open them, and close them again; and the introduction of online classes without facilities and teaching skills, was all imposed on them. This wave is an expression of their defiance against the current education system in Pakistan that merely sucks their blood.
Education has never been a priority in Pakistan. A meagre 3-4 percent of the state budget has been allocated for it continuously over the last several decades. More than 60 percent of the population is illiterate and Pakistan has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world. Illiteracy among women affects more than 70 percent of their population. Those who are lucky enough to enter a school mostly leave during primary education and only a very small percentage is able to get university education. But with the recent wave of privatisations of public sector universities and huge cuts (by more than half) to the education budget to pay back IMF loans and interest, and to spare money for defence expenditures, the situation is getting much worse. University fees have skyrocketed, leaving a huge layer of the middle class without access to higher education. With the current attacks by the government on people’s livelihoods and the public sector, it seems that even basic education will become a luxury for the few in the coming period, though it has already gone out of reach of the working class.
The situation is set to turn bleaker due to the overall deterioration of the socio-economic and political condition of Pakistan. There are prospects of a near-collapse of the education sector in Pakistan.
This clearly shows that a brewing student movement in Pakistan is on the brink of an explosion. Such spontaneous nationwide protests will be the new normal in the coming days. At one place, students could erupt against fee hikes, at another against sexual harassment.
The PYA is determined in its role to be played as a revolutionary organisation. We have been vigorously striving to organise students, win more and more to our banner, and increase our forces so that we can take the student movement towards the revolutionary overthrow of this whole capitalist system, under the leadership of the working class.