Education has become a commercial transaction in Pakistan. It has become an instrument, in the hands of a few private conglomerates, who transact with citizens in terms of the quantum of fee charged, as opposed to the quality of education delivered. And based on this model, which has been facilitated by a deprecation in the State-provided educational structure, small houses around every corner and nook of the urban and sub-urban parts of Pakistan have been turned into ‘schools’. Hapless parents who do not have access to admissions in some of the better educational institutions of the country, turn to these make-shift schools in the hope that, through some stroke of luck, their children will be taught by qualified teachers and have a convenient access to the domestic and international job market.

This transactional model of private education, which is devoid of all semblance of purpose and gravitas, makes one elusive promise to its ‘customer’: the opportunity to be a part of the global capitalistic rat-race.

A few private educational institutions take this promise a step further by directly offering a degree from foreign educational institutions (external and distance-learning programs). To give it some form of credibility, such institutions hold ‘classes’ which, for all intents and purposes, are a glorified tuition-center with an emblem and a playground.

The next category of ‘institutions’, which are perhaps most devoid of the very purpose of an (interactive) education, are the virtual universities that have seen mushroom-growth over the past decade. These portals allegedly offer a degree to anyone who has access to the internet. With lax admission standards, no physical presence, no interaction with the faculty, and no classroom experience, these virtual universities are bereft of the fundamentals of the Socratic method, which, 2500 years ago, laid the very foundations of formal schooling. And in that, these virtual universities are purely a commercial transaction between faceless students and nameless servers, riddled with all the pitfalls of fraud and cybercrime.

As a culmination of these fears, this week, in a scandal that was unearthed by Declan Walsh in the New York Times, a Pakistani company, Axact, has been alleged to defraud thousands of ‘students’, through fake virtual universities, on the promise of receiving a ‘degree’ from (non-existent) institutions with deceptively famous names. As reported, Axact, an IT service providing company, with thousands of employees in Pakistan, hosted bogus virtual university websites, and a call-center, in order to syphon and extort money from unsuspecting users.

Once this alleged scandal came to light, it turned into an immediate media frenzy, since the owners of Axact, are also the sponsors for the upcoming Bol Network. Partly motivated by the magnitude of the scandal itself, and mostly driven by anti-competitive instincts, the media houses of Pakistan highlighted the Axact scandal with an unprecedented fervor. As is customary, in our country, in response to the media clamoring, the State institutions immediately sprung to action, with the Interior Minister ordering a FIA investigation into the matter, the NAB authorities alluding to take action, and the Senate directing the SECP and the FBR to probe into the scandal.

In the days to follow, Axact offices in Pakistan have been sealed by the law-enforcement agencies, employees have been taken into custody, and the electronic servers and equipment have been confiscated for further probe and investigation.

More than anything else, what has become clear, over the past week, is that the Axact scandal presents a complex multitude of legal, constitutional and jurisdictional challenges. Equally apparent is the fact that the ongoing efforts by State and law-enforcement agencies, at least for the time being, are fragmented and reactionary in nature.

There can be no cavil with the fact that the Axact scandal, for all its complexities is a case of first instance in Pakistan. As is becoming evident with each passing hour, the case at hand involves expansive issues pertaining to fraud (covered under the Pakistan Penal Code), tax-law violations (covered under the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001), illegal financial transactions (covered under banking laws and the State Bank Act, 1956), violations of company law (covered under Companies Ordinance, 1984 and SECP Act, 1997), breach of HEC guidelines and regulations, along with convoluted and seminal issues of cyber-crime law (covered under the FIA Act, 1974 and the impending Cyber-Crime Bill).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. It is possible, in fact likely, that in case it is concluded that a “public fraud” had been committed in the name of education (which is now a constitutional right), the jurisdiction of NAB may also be invoked, and a reclamation of the defrauded money, along with arrests of the relevant individuals, may require an involvement of the INTERPOL as well as an application of Pakistan’s international treaties and covenants.

All of this, for it to be done right, requires a deliberate, purposeful and coordinated approach by our State institutions and law-enforcement agencies. Knee-jerk reactions and disjointed investigations may, in the final analysis, benefit the alleged culprits. And this, in the wake of the New York Times story, along with an international focus on the issue, will further tarnish the integrity and respect of Pakistan’s paradigm of justice.

Separately, at least for the moment, we must resist the sensational temptation to immediately link the Axact scandal to Bol Network. In terms of law, despite being owned by the same sponsors, Axact and Bol Network are two distinct and separate legal entities, and must be dealt with as such. For the moment, there seem to be no allegations of any direct involvement of the corporate resources or personnel of Bol Network in the Axact scandal. And despite our momentary passions, the law will treat it as such.

From the legal perspective, Bol Network can be affected by this scandal in two distinct ways: 1) the sponsors of Bol Network (who also happen to be the owners of Axact) may eventually be held guilty and thus, inter alia, have to face fine and/or imprisonment and, 2) in case our courts decide that Axact has made illegal money, and that such money has been used to sponsor (in part) Bol Network, then appropriate legal proceedings, for the use of illegal funds, can be instituted against Bol Network. At the moment, however, these are not the immediate legal questions before our investigative agencies or any court of law. And it is the need of the hour, for the purposes of better prosecution, that the sequential process of law is followed, as opposed to jumping to immediate (and unsubstantiated) conclusions.

The Axact case must be taken seriously by the State institutions, the courts, and the people, for being more than just a corporate scandal. It must be seen through the prism of a possible fraud having been committed in the name of that most inviolable of our societal obligations: education! And in the process, let us also take this moment to revisit the manner and passion with which we approach the project of education in our land.

 The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

saad@post.harvard.edu

@Ch_SaadRasool