The recent spate of cases of violence by university graduates and students has focused national attention on a segment of society that so far had been considered a model for a solution to the radicalisation of society. University education provides people with greater opportunities to achieve something in life, and thus gives them something to live for and less likely to fall prey to radical elements, or conventional thinking.
The infamous case of Mashal Khan’s lynching at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan in April this year shocked the nation, and caused some stirrings within university administrations. Around the same time, police arrested Noreen Leghari, the medical student from Liaquat Medical University who went missing earlier and later confessed to providing bullets and explosives to suicide attackers.
Then, only a few months later we learned about Abdul Karim Sarosh Siddiqui, the Karachi University student, Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan, and his associates. While the vice chancellor of Karachi is still denying the problem, there is a clear pattern of university-educated students involved with radical groups.
The common thread in this string of suspects and their collaborators is that they are all associated with universities, i.e. as students, graduates, faculty, etc. The public, and finally the government, took notice.
But what has been the response? Newspapers are reporting law enforcement/intelligence agencies demanding access to student records from universities. How much be gleaned about a student’s tendencies to get radicalised from the basic information universities retains is debatable. Public debate suggests significant political and public opposition to this step. The response from universities has been half-hearted. Some have issued strongly worded letters to faculty, urging them to remain “vigilant” of extremist tendencies in students. Just how faculty members are expected to spot signs of radicalisation in individual students while they are teaching class (which is the only occasion most students interact with their professors), is anyone’s guess.
Others are making a bigger show of taking action and have assigned faculty as advisors to groups of students and have handed them a pages long list of new responsibilities. In addition to tracking their academic performance, they have now been tasked with creating and maintaining files on each student to maintain a disciplinary record and personal history. In at least one instance, professors are required to stay in telephonic contact with student’s parents, be informed on their “wards” medical condition, and be aware of their personal problems.
Young adults of university age are hardly known to confide details of their personal problems to their parents. Whoever came up with this suggestion has not spent much time with teenagers and young adults. Faculty is expected to write up the personal information elicited from students and regularly forward those narratives to the university administration every month.
Who will read these reports about thousands of students? No one knows.
If an advisor determines a student is falling behind academically, it is now the responsibility of the faculty advisor to arrange for out-of-class tutoring for him/her. Whatever little expectation of personal responsibility universities had from students is now dead.
Without hyperbole, in case of NUST, these advisors are quite literally told to meet with students in their hostels, explain personal hygiene/grooming to them, take them out for dinner a few times a semester, among other things. Clearly, this is about more than just the publicly stated aim of the policy, i.e., help students improve their academic performance.
In other words, university professors are now being told to serve as nannies and therapists to students, but without giving students the benefit of confidentiality they have with a trained therapist.
The problems with these initiatives are easy to see. Faculty members are not qualified to act as therapists, which is why they are resisting this responsibility. There is a reason therapists are trained professionals. Equally understandable, students will not suddenly open up about their inner personal and medical problems to inherently uninterested strangers. Add to that the tons of paperwork this creates.
The bottomline is universities are creating mountains of administrative workload that will likely fail to produce much insight. We also laid out these new initiatives to a few students and the reaction from most of them was shock and recoil.
The right solution
After the incidents cited above, politicians are looking towards universities to take some action. There are steps universities can take to reduce the possibility of identifying students drifting towards radicalism. However, it will take more than merely making faculty members perform double-duty as therapists.
Around the world, student affairs offices of universities provide students access to qualified student counsellors. As a matter of fact, student counselling is a much sought after Masters and Ph.D. level specialisation in education. Student counsellors are the face of a university for thousands of enrolled students. They are trained listeners and help students work through anxiety, grief, conflicts with friends/family, career decisions, habit control, loneliness and thoughts of suicide. Student counsellors are trained for all the roles that clueless university administrations in Pakistan now want faculty members to fulfill, who are untrained in dealing with such issues.
Student counsellors are not a luxury, they are a standard feature of modern universities everywhere. If you think this idea is untested in the Pakistani context, you should know that LUMS has been operating its student affairs office with student counselling services for around 20 years now. According to the latest information published on their website, they are able to serve their sizable student community by having two counsellors available at most times. Clearly, the resources required do not break a university’s budget.
When the next tragedy involving a university student strikes, the blame for missing early warning signs will be laid at the feet of whatever poor fellow was his/her advisor. Meanwhile, the university will be able to say it did its job and absolve itself of further responsibility.
However, while the cancer of radicalisation becomes symptomatic at university age, it has its roots in schools. Whatever lip service the public school curriculum pays to the rights of minorities is overwhelmed by the message that there is only one right way to be in this world: Pakistani and Muslim, everyone else is wrong or second best.
There is still a great need for serious reform of this curriculum, particularly the two holy cows of school subjects: Islamiat and Pakistan Studies. These two subjects have been made mandatory for the first 16 years of schooling, all the way through the first 4 years of university. However, beyond the eighth grade the contents become repetitive and provide little new learning. If the compulsory teaching of these subjects was intended to instill higher morals in our citizens it is safe to say that this experiment has failed. Crime (both petty and grand), fraud, graft, bribery, corruption, dishonesty, murder, vigilantism, harassment, etc. are widespread.
Few children in Pakistan have the opportunity to travel, see the world and to learn that people can have very different ideas and beliefs but still be decent human beings. The education children receive in public schools teaches very little about the global diversity of thoughts, ideas and cultures.
We propose three concrete changes to the curriculum. The difficulty in implementing them is primarily political: First, stop teaching Islamiat and Pakistan Studies somewhere around grade 6. Students of that age are perfectly capable of absorbing the material that is taught in these subjects today.
Second, for grades 7 and 8, replace Pakistan Studies with World History. By the time our high-school students graduate, they still know next to nothing about the history of the world outside our borders. Besides leaving them with a historical blind-spot, it leaves a lot of loose ends about events they study in Pakistan Studies. This vacuum gives others the opportunity to fill it with conspiracy theories and misinformation about other religions. The study of history of other parts of the world will give the context necessary to understand events in our own history.
Third, for grades 7 to 8, replace Islamiat with Religious Studies which can teach students about all major religions of the world, as is done in many other countries. Another subject that can be introduced at that level is Citizenship, which can teach students about democratic norms, the structure of government, the checks and balances in our system, elections, the constitution, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
Beyond grade 8, these subjects should be made optional, giving students the option to explore other subjects in their place. Imagine graduating future doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals who have basic knowledge of economics, entrepreneurship, political science, business studies, art, etc. in addition to their core requirements.
The government has to play its role in denying radicals a fertile supply of young minds. At the same time, universities will have to deal with the already polluted supply coming their way. Unless the state and universities both take action to constrain the supply of misinformed and misguided minds and deny young adults the opportunity to drift towards radicalism, we are just whistling past the graveyard.
The half-measures that some universities are taking in response to national outcry are eyewash for the public and will prove ineffective. Like the common proverb says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Universities administrations should follow global best practices evolved by the best universities around the globe from decades of experience, instead of trying to evolve their own solutions and spending another 20 years stumbling through the darkness. That means setting up bona fide student affairs offices staffed with qualified student counsellors.
In the meantime, government must take the politically difficult step to review the contents and scope of Islamiat and Pakistan Studies subjects and augment them with subjects that educate students about the history and beliefs of the rest of the world.