Pakistan: university of life

Active Citizens training is becoming a part of Pakistani university education. Helen Clifton discovered how social action is becoming part of the curriculum.

With an enormous 40,000 Active Citizens in Pakistan, the appetite for citizenship and social engagement across the country is huge. This figure, however, lies in stark contrast to the huge scale of Pakistan’s social problems.

According to the British Council’s own research, only one in ten young Pakistanis have confidence in national or local government; less than 40 per cent voted in the last election, while half are not even on the voters’ list.

Despite this, young Pakistanis overwhelmingly say they love their country. They are also civic-minded. Nearly half believe education’s primary purpose is to learn to be a good citizen or to gain a broad understanding of the world.

British Council discussions with Pakistani universities revealed that these statistics were matched by a keen desire to harness students’ commitment to social responsibility. Students themselves were also enthusiastic – the vast majority of Pakistan’s Active Citizens attend college or university.

The British Council suggested a solution: run Active Citizens as a mandatory accredited course, to be taken by students alongside their degrees. In 2012, a pilot ‘university model’ Active Citizens course was designed and taught to 900 students at Lahore College for Women University (LCWU).

LCWU Pharmacy graduate Amna Saeed, 22, was one of the first to try it out. Although initially sceptical, a module on self-identity started to make her think, for the first time, about the concept of citizenship.

‘It started to change my thoughts. This was the first time I had thought about myself and my priorities in life. The whole training gave me confidence that I can bring a positive change to my community.

‘It also taught me about the ways to design and start a social-action project. So I looked around and started to analyse – what can I do to make my country better?’

After identifying health and poverty as core issues for local people, Amna joined forces with 18 volunteer students and set up a kitchen gardening project to enable people to grow their own produce.

The project has gone from strength to strength. After recruiting over 1,000 students and community volunteers, they have delivered a series of seminars to other universities – including the Institute of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Punjab – as well as agricultural experts and community organisations.

‘In the beginning, I had to go and manage each and every seminar, but now there are a lot of activities successfully happening in my absence as well. I feel like I have sown a seed, and now the plant is growing day by day.’ Amna Saeed.

The pilot was successful, and the university model was wholeheartedly embraced. By next year, six universities, in cities including Bahawalpur and Karachi, will have taught the Active Citizens course to over 10,000 students. The programme will soon be launched in 15 colleges across Jammu and Kashmir.

And the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has now agreed to roll out Active Citizens to all public universities by 2017 – embedding Active Citizens across Pakistan’s education system, and making social action a fundamental part of every student’s life

For Amna, this is an exciting prospect. She believes Active Citizens training not only

encourages citizenship and engagement, but is also invaluable at a professional level.

‘Skills like planning, management, communication, are missing in the education system. All students should go through Active Citizens to become more confident about whatever they do.’ Amna Saeed.

Bahria University Psychology lecturer and Active Citizens facilitator Kiran Ahmad agrees. Although Amna’s scepticism was shared by many of his Karachi-based students, they soon recognised that the unique nature of the Active Citizens model actually supports health and social sciences learning.

‘Once they got out into the field, they realised that their understanding of psychology helped them in their field experiences, and vice versa. Now I have a large class of excited students who even before starting the course have already mapped out their projects.’

The university model is made up of four eight-hour modules based on the classic Active Citizens themes of identity and culture; debate and dialogue; society and citizenship; and project and business planning.

Students then run a social action project in their local communities for six months.

The UK-based Citizenship Foundation adapted Active Citizens for an academic setting, and the model offers citizenship training, opportunities for community engagement, a chance to participate in national and international youth exchanges and policy dialogues – including Active Citizens International Study Visits – and training in participatory methodologies and facilitation.

The course is also designed to be completely flexible and sustainable. After a year’s support, the British Council hands over management to the universities.

Like Amna, Kiran says that teaching Active Citizens in universities has also enhanced integration in an increasingly divided Pakistan. Not only has the training encouraged closer relationships between different departments, campuses and institutions, it has also connected many middle class students with their fellow Pakistanis who are forced to live in poverty.In Karachi, a project in which students designed sanitation systems for slums saw them help clean peoples’ homes, and gain an intimate understanding of the issues.

‘Many students who belong to well-off homes, who have never been out of their comfort zones, have been suddenly exposed to some harsh realities of life,’ Kiran explains.‘It has allowed them to empathise more with people from diverse backgrounds.’

The adaptability of the university model means it is now broadening its horizons beyond Pakistan. The UK’s Citizenship

Foundation is looking at potential Active Citizens links with Brighton University, and there have been talks around establishing a university Active Citizens model in Poland, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Last year, Active Citizens partners from around the world visited Pakistan to see the impact of the university model for

themselves. Participants spoke of how the visit had changed their perception of Pakistan. Many, like Tim Wallace, senior lecturer at the UK’s University Campus Oldham, were so impressed they are now in discussions about offering Active Citizens to their own students.

As he explains: ‘Active Citizens is embedded into the curriculum not just as another necessary burden of being lectured at and tested – but as a life-changing and enhancing transformative experience.’

 

Of 200 Pakistani university students who took the Active Citizens course:

• over 130 strongly agreed that they would now be more likely to take action to improve their communities

• over 130 strongly agreed that they had expanded their professional and personal networks

• around 120 strongly agreed that they had a better understanding of social issues within their communities

• around 110 strongly agreed that they had a better understanding of the relationship between global and local issues.

 

Student social action in Pakistan has been hugely varied, and has so far included:

• an initiative to help people clear rubbish from local slums

• the restoration of inter-faith relations between Muslims and Christians

• computer skills classes for the over-60s

• self-defence lessons for young girls

• Dar ul Amaan (Safe House for Women), a project to teach widows and orphan girls to make handbags and scarf's to generate an income