Police in Pakistan’s Balochistan province’s capital Quetta recently arrested more than a dozen student leaders and activists for demanding internet connectivity before universities conduct online classes and exams. While they were all released eventually, no assurance has been given to them or to protesting students in other provinces that they will be able to take their forthcoming exams.
Pakistan’s statutory regulatory body, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), recently directed all registered institutions of higher education to start holding online classes followed by online exams. For this, the schools were asked to acquire and use the required technology as well as train staff on an urgent basis.
Tech giant Microsoft deployed teams for online and remote learning interactions across more than 100 public and private universities to support HEC’s move. Perhaps that’s good for some students who have access to the internet.
With about 22 percent of the population having access to the internet, Pakistan ranked 76th among 100 countries in the Inclusive Internet Index 2020. The ranking was based on four parameters: availability, affordability, relevance, and readiness of people to use the internet.
Not surprisingly, the HEC’s decision drew protests from students across Pakistan.
Student protests should also be seen in light of how precious higher education is for Pakistan’s youth. Less than 10 percent of Pakistan’s population has access to university education, according to the World Bank. And the number drops significantly, one would safely assume, among those who live in backward areas.
Balochistan and the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are among the most backward parts of the country, and, on top of that, the internet remains blocked intermittently also for “security reasons” in the region, including parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
“Being a hosteller, I had to leave the university and the city as soon as the lockdown was announced. There’s hardly any connectivity in my village, and on top of that 10-12 hours of load-shedding is common,” said a student, who identified himself only as Yasir, in the Rawalakot area of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. “So far, we were told to submit online assignments which we managed somehow, because we had time. But online exams or presentations are out of question because you can’t hold on electricity.”
Yasir, who studies at a university in Islamabad, added, “In cities, people have proper access to the internet and all the necessary gadgets required for online classes. In my village, there’s neither electricity nor proper connectivity.”
Members of the Baloch Students Alliance also went on a hunger strike for three days.
“You can’t reach the moon if you travel by Pakistan Railways’ Thal Express; you’ll need a rocket for that. Similarly, if you wish to implement the online system of education, you’ll have to provide the internet first. Where is the internet in Balochistan, or FATA, or Kashmir?” a student said while protesting.
The strike was called off after talks with the chief minister of Balochistan, Jam Kamal Khan, who assured the students that he would convey their grievances to the HEC and the federal minister of education.
Even in the cities, students have raised questions over the ability of professors and teachers to be conduct online classes.
“There is no infrastructure, there’s no internet,” said Omer Adullah, from a student group called “Revolutionary Students Front,” in Punjab province. “There is not even basic training of teachers and professors. Online examinations at this time would only help the telecommunication companies and not students. It is discriminatory.”
Like elsewhere in the world, educational institutions had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in-person classes remain closed in many countries. No government can be blamed for it, but in countries like Pakistan – as also India – the authorities missed the whole point of a lockdown.
The coronavirus-related restrictions were meant to “flatten the curve,” or to “delay” the imminent outbreak, so that governments would get time to improve the healthcare infrastructure and prepare themselves for delivering other essential services, including education, after the country opened up.
However, all that the governments in South Asia seem to have done is enforce the lockdown with police batons while making little or no preparations. And now, the batons are once again being used when citizens are protesting against government failures.