The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan may soon be dissolved and the authority devolved to the provinces. This move does not bode well for the future of higher education in Pakistan and should be cause for serious concern.
According to The News (March 25):
Implementation Commission has approved the devolution of HEC despite the fact that it exists in the Federal Legislative List (FLL) while under 18th amendment only concurrent list is supposed to be devolved. It has been learnt reliably that the Implementation Commission in its last meeting reviewed the HEC law for almost five hours after which they had decided to devolve it without taking HEC into confidence.
Not only do the provinces have little or no capacity or infrastructure, the loss of autonomy will also be a major setback for implementing and standardizing higher education. HEC not only serves the purpose of developing, supporting and promoting higher education, it is also the main source of research support in the country. The move will mean that provinces, without any existing infrastructure or capacity, will now be in charge of higher education as well as nearly all research funding in the country.
The move, while likely to go ahead, has been widely opposed – and rightly -by academics, university administrators and researchers across the country. According to Express Tribune (March 27):
Vice chancellors (VC) of public universities made a strong but futile attempt to push for the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to retain its current role. VCs from more than 36 public sector universities along with HEC Chairperson Dr Javed Laghari and Executive Director Dr Sohail Naqvi met with the Commission for Implementation of the 18th Amendment on Saturday.
Dr Laghari, in his presentation to the committee, stated that the 18th Amendment fully supported the current powers and functions of the HEC. He said the provinces and universities had a strong and forceful voice in the HEC. “They are full participants and decision makers in the development and implementation of all plans for the promotion of higher education in the country. Therefore [there is no need to devolve the HEC],” he argued.
The vice chancellors unanimously agreed that the HEC had done a great job in the past eight years and its existence in its present shape would only ensure the maintainance of high standards of education in the country. They said the commission must continue to perform all its functions in the same manner as it has been doing to date.
The VCs observed that transferring the higher education system to the provinces would complicate education policies and implementation processes. Smaller provinces would be affected due to their lack of capacity to handle matters pertaining to higher education.
However, implementation commission chairperson Senator Raza Rabbani said HEC has no role in the future except setting standards and regulation of higher education, according to the commission’s interpretation of the 18th Amendment.
While opinions are divided on the successes of HEC over the last eight years, there is little debate on whether or not we need a strong institution to promote and strengthen our higher education and research. Developed and developing countries, across the globe have institutions with a similar mandate and these institutions are almost always centralized with the federal government. Provinces or states have smaller scale institutions that compliment, but never replace the national one.
HEC has not been without its critics. It is important that we continue to discuss and debate the successes and criticize failures of HEC, as this is in the very spirit of nation building. Yet, we should do this while keeping in mind the best interest of quality research and highest standards of education. In a society that is already suffering from an economic and infrastructure meltdown, dissolving what already exists, and creating replicate institutions from scratch, seems far from practical or prudent for nation building.
Prof. Zaman is Assistant Professor at Boston University.