Along the Mall, close to the Governor’s House, stands the majestic red-brick building of Aitchison College with its sprawling lawns, playgrounds, stables and British-era architecture boasting a legacy of over 125 years old. No wonder it makes every parent’s dream institution for their son.
Traditionally, Aitchison College has been known for being an educational institution that is meant for the sons of the political or moneyed elite of Punjab. Their generations after generations have studied at this ‘exclusive’ institute set up by the British.
The college is currently in the news because of what is being termed as the most unexpected decision made by its Board of Governors (BoG) — that of abolishing kinship preferences in admissions. The decision was made over three weeks ago, in a BoG meeting, in which the status quo was challenged. It obviously raised the question whether it was a step in the right direction.
Apparently, the BoG abolished the criteria of kinship for admission to the college in a bid to “ensure admissions on merit.” It was also decided that the college would not increase its fee so that the students with middle class backgrounds could receive quality education at the institute.
However, the reactions to the policy shift are but mixed. Many people have appreciated the decision, calling it a step to end ‘discrimination’ — “Here’s hoping other elite schools will follow suit,” reads a tweet; another goes, “Be raised to throne, not born to it.”
At the Governor’s House, where a meeting was being held, presided over by the Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, who is also the chairman of the Aitchison College BoG, every other visitor seemed to raise eyebrows at the policy shift saying that the sitting governor, politically raised in Britain, had challenged the political elite of the country and that the decision should be reversed soon.
In his defence, the Governor says it is not about kinship but merit. “We have to see whether merit is being observed or not,” he tells TNS, in an exclusive meeting.
“Kinship was never an issue. There were no marks for kinship originally in the prospectus. Actually, merit was not being observed.”
The Governor claims that merit has been made simple from this year and toppers in exam would be given admission in descending order.
“There is no kinship; no quota; no discretionary powers,” he declares. “Also, admission on the basis of kinship is not permitted under the law. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has never made a provision for this.
“During our [BoG] meetings, there was clear legal advice that no marks be given based on kinship,” he adds. “There is also a notification from the [Punjab] Chief Minister to uphold only merit in all educational institutions.”
The Governor says the rule will be the same for all schools whether it was Sadiq Public School or Hassan Abdal College or Aitchison College. “It is my job to implement that in my jurisdiction.”
When asked if he suspected any resistance to this big shift in the college admission policy, the Governor says, “Challenging the status quo is not easy. However, it was the board’s unanimous decision. There were different points of view but we agreed on this at the end.
“If we want to run this country we have to end this class divide,” he continues. “Our children cannot be discriminated against, on the basis of their social pedigree. There cannot be different rules for different classes.”
According to the Governor, the policy shift shall help to create diversity in the college. “The people are happy and this is the first time that merit lists are displayed at the college notice boards for every class.
“This is a good start, I tell you. Earlier, the people would say you cannot bring merit here, but we did.”
Reportedly, the scions of many ‘notables’ have been denied admission to the college. Originally called Punjab Chiefs’ College, the institute was renamed Aitchison College in November 1886 in order to honour the services of Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, towards setting it up.
The foundation of the main building was laid by the Viceroy, the Earl of Dufferin and Ava on November 3, 1886. Aitchison College is the lineal descendent of the Wards’ School at Ambala and the Chiefs’ Colleges. The College is built on a land of over 186 acres and its buildings are seen as some of the best architectural pieces in the entire city of Lahore.
Old Aitchisonian, Senator Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan says it would not be fair to abolish kinship. “This tradition is everywhere in the world. A certain percentage of admission is made on merit — even in Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard University,” he says.
“The sitting Punjab Governor is imported from a family that has been ruling in England for the past over 1,000 years.”
He also says there was no harm in setting a small percentage for admissions on merit-based kinship. “Abolishing kinship is strange and an extremist view.
“Also, if you completely abolish it, you will not be able to get Baloch, Pashtun or Sindhi students in. They all come because their fathers were here. Aitchison, in this way, represents federation, like National College of Arts does. It’s a place where all these people from different parts of the country gel together. In some institutions, this policy should be open.”
Aitzaz Ahsan insists that the policy shall “have a serious effect.”
On the other hand, replying to a question about how strange is it to put an end to a century-old tradition, the Punjab Governor maintains, “Do you think that violation of merit is a tradition? If it is so, it is a strange interpretation.
“Should we not implement rules?” he asks.
The Governor says that the college shall also cut down on the numbers of seats every year to maintain quality. It may be mentioned here that the number of seats has gone up in the past few years.
“The experience of being an Aitchisonian is simply extraordinary,” gushes a current student of the college.
About the college’s new admission policy, he says, “There are good and bad aspects to the tradition of kinship and donations.”
An April 2012 report, published in The News, said that 58 “failed” students had made it to the prestigious Aitchison College in the previous year, managing admission through the support of influential figures, mostly from the [ruling} Pakistan People’s Party bigwigs.
The report, revealing gross violation of merit in overall admissions, highlighted the then principal of the college who not only accommodated candidates who had failed in written examinations but also let four students in despite having no vacant seats.
“I believe in traditions. The tradition of kinship is not in Pakistan only, but also in the entire world,” says Yousuf Salahuddin, an old Aitchisonian.
However, he adds, “We must give consideration to kinship only to a certain extent and merit should not be compromised on.”
Saroop Ijaz, another Aitchison alumnus, believes abolishing kinship is a “good thing, and there can’t be two opinions about that.”
To back his argument, he says that the college, “historically, was a British public school. “Such schools were made by the British in a special mode and at a special time. These were meant for a class and meant to create a class in the subcontinent.”
Ijaz also says that there are no defined rules about kinship. “The narrative of continuation of the old and original model is not favourable in modern day and age.”