PAKISTAN: Violent clashes over college 'privatisation'

College students and teachers, enraged by a decision they say amounts to the privatisation of colleges in the country's most populous province Punjab, staged major protests that erupted into violence in several cities last week.

In the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore, college students and lecturers who were pelting stones clashed with police on Wednesday. Police retaliated with baton charges and tear gas, injuring five lecturers and 12 students.

The protests were against new measures to administer colleges. In a letter in June the Punjab government informed the principals of 26 colleges that each of their institutions would be brought under boards of governors empowered to take decisions on the college's finances and administration.

Each college will have its own nine-member board comprising an industrialist, a social worker, two retired professors, the principal of the college, one member of the provincial assembly and two members nominated by the board chairman, who will be the District Coordination Officer, the chief bureaucrat at the district level of local government.

The Punjab Professors and Lecturers Association, PPLA, which organised the protests, has resisted the board of governors system since it was proposed, fearing it is a step towards privatising government colleges and that their jobs would be insecure under the new system.

The PPLA was joined in the protests by student organisations, most prominent among them the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the youth wing of Jamat-e-Islami (JI), a political party considered to have pro-Taliban leanings.

The students fear the provincial government's move will lead to increased fees, and some experts also say the pro-Taliban groups believe the government's motive is to oust Taliban sympathisers from colleges.

Shakeel Abbasi, President of the PPLA's Rawalpindi chapter, told University World News: "Many times over we staged peaceful protests and demanded that the government reverse the decision of privatising the colleges of the province, as that would only make education costly for students. But the government never paid any heed."

The Punjab government insists it is not a move towards privatisation.

Ahad Cheema, the provincial government's Secretary for Higher Education, told the media in Lahore: "Our aim is to improve administration of the colleges through awarding them internal autonomy and this is not privatisation, as colleges would remain under government control, with the same fee structure and the same faculty."

Cheema said the new system aimed to bring state-controlled college education on a par with universities, which are already semi-autonomous. Unlike universities, colleges still need education department approval even for minor hiring decisions.

"The new system has been introduced not to shun the government's responsibility of funding higher education but to avoid bureaucratic delays in decision-making to quickly improve higher education standards in the province," Cheema said, adding that every college would receive a Rs20 million (US$233,250) annual grant under the new system.

During the latest protests college students and teachers tried to forcibly enter the provincial legislative assembly while it was in session.

As police stopped the protesters at the assembly reception, they became violent, pelting police with stones, burning two police vans and smashing reception area windows. Furnishings were also set on fire. Students also damaged private property including buses and cars.

The province's High Court ordered an inquiry into the Lahore incident, as violent protests spread rapidly to other cities including Faisalabad, Multan and Rawalpindi.