Imran Khan vows to convert PM House into a university

Following his victory in Pakistan’s general election held on 25 July, Prime Minister-designate Imran Khan has promised an ambitious education agenda and announced during his success speech on Thursday that he intends to convert the Prime Minister's House into a centre of higher education.

The famous cricketer-turned politician and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, who is a graduate of the University of Oxford, had criticised the vast and lavish residence of the prime minister located near Margalla Hills of Islamabad, calling it a symbol of exploitation of the poor people.

He said: "I will not live in the PM House and will convert it into an educational institution where common people have access." Earlier he announced through his party’s election manifesto: "PTI will put in place the most ambitious education agenda in Pakistan’s history."

The residence of Pakistan's prime minister and other such places like the residence of the president of Pakistan and office-cum-residences of provincial governors and chief ministers are secluded, protected places, but Khan vowed to convert them into universities during his election campaign.

Academics and analysts doubt whether Khan will deliver on his public announcement given his party’s track record in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where it won power in 2013. During that election campaign Imran Khan announced a plan to convert the house of the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province into a public library, but this did not subsequently materialise during five years of PTI rule.

Vice-Chancellor of Multan's Bahauddin Zakariya University, Professor Tahir Amin, told University World News: "Such announcements are mere political slogans and I do not think that it will be practically possible to have the prime minister live outside the official residence, which is secluded, well-guarded in view of terrorism threats and the place has enough space for reception of high-profile state guests and international delegations."

Promises to establish universities and reforming higher education had been a cornerstone of his election campaign but he was earlier criticised for not delivering on promises about higher education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. When during the recent election campaign, he claimed to have set up nine universities in the province, the Higher Education Commission contradicted him and clarified that it recognises only four of those.

Boasting of setting up universities was not confined to Khan. His political rival, Shehbaz Sharif, the president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), who had been chief minister of Punjab province during the past five years, responded to Khan’s claim by telling a press conference in June that his government established 19 universities in Punjab.

The PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had announced it would set up 29 colleges, but 17 of them could not be established on the ground, English daily Dawn reported last year. By contrast, the PML-N provincial government in Punjab claimed during the election campaign to have set up 200 colleges, besides 19 universities.

Universities and higher education found a prominent place for the first time in election manifestoes of political parties in Pakistan as almost all contending parties vowed to transform higher education.

PTI has promised in its 2018 election manifesto to establish at least 10 technical education universities in collaboration with renowned partners from around the globe. "We will provide public scholarships and set up a National Endowment Fund for international universities, and provide international distance-learning opportunities for tertiary education," states the party manifesto.

The party also promised to regulate university curriculums to include compulsory courses on communication, reasoning and information technology, and to introduce transparency in the appointments of university leaders, as the manifesto states.

"We will remove political influence and create an independent, transparent mechanism to select vice-chancellors and senior administrators," it pledged.

The PML-N, which held power from 2013 to 2018 and was runner-up this time, had promised to further increase funding for higher education, having already increased higher education funding by 75% during its five-year tenure.

In its election manifesto, PML-N had vowed to establish higher education linkages with China, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, besides promising to support research, raise academic standards and increase the number of female faculty members. But it failed to win a majority.

Independent analyst and columnist Munir Ahmed told University World News: "Although I do not believe that prime minister house or the governor and chief ministers’ houses will be converted into universities, such huge claims shall continue to remind the new government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) to fulfil its promises made for the higher education sector during their election campaign."

The Higher Education Reforms Committee, an independent council of higher education professionals, played a significant role in convincing political parties to make higher education reforms part of their political agendas. The committee provided its recommendations mainly focusing on merit and transparency in appointments and budget increases for the universities.

Munir said that time would tell whether the incoming government of PTI would be good for higher education or whether the outgoing government of Sharif's PML-N was better, having practically delivered a lot to this sector during the past five years.