Peace building through higher education

Each year the International Day of Peace is celebrated around the world on 21 September to promote the values of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. The United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, realising the fact that it would not be possible to build a peaceful world if steps were not taken to achieve economic and social development for all people everywhere, and ensure that their rights were protected. The Sustainable Goals cover a broad range of issues, including poverty, hunger, health, education, climate change, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, environment and social justice. Sustainable Development Goal 16 “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” calls for promoting ideals of peace and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. A peaceful society is one where justice and equality are available for everyone. 

According to the latest National Human Development Report launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people ever recorded in its history; 64% of the total population is below the age of 30 while 29% is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Pakistan has become one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in the South Asian region after Afghanistan. During the last few years, the total number of universities has increased to 205 with 114 regional campuses across Pakistan. There is dire need not only to highlight the vital role of universities in peace building but also in promoting values of peace, tolerance, co-existence and harmony among this largest segment of the society. 

During South Asia Higher Education Symposium: New Regional Approaches which was successfully organized by Hollings Centre for International Dialogue at Istanbul during April, 2019, there was a consensus among the higher education leadership across the South Asia about the effective role of universities in peace building within the campuses as well as among the regional countries.  

In the backdrop of Mashal Khan lynching incident at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan and other incidents of ethnic and religious violence at the various university campuses, there is dire need to focus on student societies, faculty and administration/hostel administration. Due to ban on student unions, student societies should be strengthened as effective alternative platform for meaningful engagement of students. Directorate of Student Affairs should not be established in each university but the required funding should be ensured both by the federal and provincial governments.  We should look at the universities at integral part of our society.  Outside campus societal issues and problems deeply affect the enrolled students and the faculty. 

Special training programs should be conducted for faculty, director student affairs and hostel staff along with introducing courses on peace, tolerance and harmony. There is also dire need to review the existing content of Pakistan and Islamic Studies courses being offered at undergraduate level.  

Universities should also encourage critical thinking along with problem solving and conflict resolution skills among the students. The students should have ability to take initiatives, risks and the ability to work with others despite having differences of opinion.  Culture of dialogue should be promoted through organizing debates, seminars, literary festivals and other student led initiatives.    

According to the Roadmap on Peaceful & Tolerant University Campuses and recommendations of recent two Vice Chancellors meeting organized by Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences and University of Karachi, new policies in higher education sector should be aimed at to create space for students’ involvement in extra-curriculum activities so that their leadership qualities could be utilized with full potential. Students need to be considered as important stakeholder in higher education and they need to be engaged through ensuring their active participation in various academic and extra-curricular activities. Student societies should also be strengthened through continuous technical, financial assistance, capacity building and close linkages with corporate sector. Inter- university and inter-provincial experience sharing mechanism on peaceful and tolerant university campuses should be continued and further strengthened especially among higher education leadership, faculty and student societies

Being diverse country, Pakistan is facing multiple political, ethnic, religious, sectarian and environmental conflicts, which also require attention in research and teaching at Pakistani universities. Peace and conflict resolution are vital preconditions for sustainable economic growth, democracy and development. Very few Pakistani universities offer courses on understanding violence, extremism, terrorism and conflict resolution.

International Day of Peace calls upon all seeking peaceful resolution of conflicts when disagreements arise around us. We can be part of the solution by taking small steps including preventing any injustice in the society by adopting a non-violent approach to problem solving.

Muhammad Murtaza Noor is associated with the development and education sector for more than 19 years. He is currently working as Country Coordinator Global Academics Leadership Academy (GALA) for Pakistan.

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