Education is considered key to uniting nations and reforming societies. It is important to recognise the crucial role of education in contributing towards building a culture of peace, diversity and harmony and of tertiary education in building a knowledge economy. Being a hub of ideas, innovation and knowledge-creation, universities play a vital role in inculcating the values of responsible citizenship, peace, tolerance, harmony, pluralism and co-existence among the youth. Pakistan has 183 recognised public and private sector universities with 109 countrywide campuses. According to 2014-15 figures, the total enrolment in Pakistani universities was 1.295 million.

Shaken by the Mashal incident that occurred recently in Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, the attitudes of the society have severely affected the universities, which should be other way around. Surprisingly, the university students who are at the last stage of their education about to enter into practical life, were found involved in violence through negating rule of law. This incident and other campus-based untoward episodes are eye-openers for all of us, especially the university administration which requires immediate attention from all the stakeholders. The most important challenge is how to involve the university students in positive activities and keeping them away from violence and extremism.

This situation was deliberated on thoroughly during the recent two-day conference on promotion of peace and tolerance at university campuses of Punjab, which was organised by the Working Group for Promotion of Peace and Tolerance at University Campuses of the Punjab and Punjab Higher Education Commission (PHEC) at Lahore. The vice-chancellors, directors of student affairs, officials of Punjab Higher Education Commission, intellectuals and representatives of 27 public sector universities of the Punjab participated in the conference. It was the first ever effort undertaken by any province for peaceful and tolerant university campuses. Four working groups were formed to make recommendations which were headed by four vice chancellors. These groups unanimously recommended that university administration should regularly hold sports events, cultural programmes, study circles, speeches, debates and literary sessions in order to promote peace and tolerance at university campuses. It was also referred that as there is a ban on student unions for many years, the students need to be involved in various student societies on the pattern of Government College University Lahore which has more than 40 active student societies to inculcate the value of critical thinking among the students. There was also consensus to encourage culture of dialogue over various societal issues among the faculty and students.

The participants were of the view that inclusion of topics in curriculum related to peace, tolerance, fundamental rights and constitutionalism can strengthen the knowledge-base of students to actively play an important role for the betterment of society. Universities also need to encourage debate on these important topics through seminars and conferences besides holding short courses, workshops and speech competitions at university campuses.

Pakistan is facing multiple political, ethnic, social, religious and sectarian conflicts, which also require attention in research and teaching at 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.

But the positive thing is that the universities have started holding the literature festivals quite frequently which encourage dialogue among students and attach them with booking reading. The recent literary festivals attracted thousand students in Gujrat, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Gujranwala and Multan. The efforts of the vice chancellors of these universities and their team are quite appreciable to reform the university campuses through engaging the students in positive activities.

The first ever Multan Literary Festival was held on April 6-7, 2017 at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan in collaboration with the Punjab Higher Education Commission, National Book Foundation, Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences and PHEC Working Group on Promotion of Peace and Tolerance among other literary organisations. This mega activity was greatly helpful in engaging university students in literary activities and bridging gap between academia and literary organisations. Such initiatives need to be supported by the provincial governments.

Experts are of the opinion that the role of the university is to initiate the dialogue but its absence has changed the attitude of the society. Where the dialogue stops, deadlock begins that leads to extremists’ thoughts. Questions should be raised and answered to put an end to intolerance. Accepting different opinions and respecting this difference of opinion is the beauty of the society. Even if a person is a perpetrator then there are other authorities who should have taken care of such matters, but taking the law in one’s hand is totally unacceptable.

There is also an urgent need to build institutional frameworks and partnerships to support universities. Moreover, universities may announce awards for students contributing extraordinarily in the field of peace and harmony. In addition, universities can train their youth to counter radicalism and extremism in society, particularly by discouraging elements promoting violence. There is also need to review the decision of ban on student unions in consultation with all concerned stakeholders because ,in past, these unions provided a positive and healthy platform to the students and banning of Unions a major setback for students to positively contribute for the welfare of university and society. According to the experts, campus based violent incidents have increased in absence of student unions and culture of dialogue has also adversely affected.

A close interaction among academia, research organisations and policymakers is the need of the hour in order to resolve various socioeconomic problems in Pakistan. Policy makers and practitioners should also take the youth and academia of universities on board while making important strategies for peace on national and international level. A university, as a central hub of academic and intellectual activities, is the best avenue for promotion of peace, diversity, tolerance and harmony in society. With continuous support to peace building initiatives at the universities, the desired results of peaceful and tolerant campuses can be achieved.

The participants were of the view that inclusion of topics in curriculum related to peace, tolerance, fundamental rights and constitutionalism can strengthen the knowledge-base of students to actively play an important role for the betterment of society.