The controversy over the appointment of the new Higher Education Commission (HEC) executive director landed in the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, heading a three-judge bench of the apex court, had issued notices to the federal government and the new acting HEC executive director (ED), Major (retd) Qamaruz Zaman, for allegedly violating the appointment rules of the commission.
The petitioner, introduced as ‘a concerned citizen’, was represented by his counsel Anwar Mansoor Khan. Khan told the court that this was the second time in less than a year that the government had attacked the HEC’s autonomy and removed its ED. The counsel said, “It is a sheer violation of the HEC Ordinance’s Section 11, which says that HEC is the only appointing authority for the ED, while … the prime minister [can] appoint the chairman of HEC.” Khan added that in this case, a notification for the new ED was issued illegally by the cabinet and establishment division.
Wasim Sajjad appeared on behalf of the HEC. He also supported the petition, saying that the chief executive has no say in the appointment procedure for the HEC ED.
The chief justice was surprised to hear that the previous HEC ED, Sohail Naqvi, was replaced by the government. An official of the commission, Nasir Khan, handed over a document to the court in which HEC Chairperson Javed Laghari asked the new acting ED to start the process of hiring a new ED immediately.
Responding to Sajjad and Khan’s plea, the chief justice said that the court could have issued a stay order in this regard, but since the chairman himself entrusted Zaman with the process of appointing a new ED, the case will not be taken up on December 17.
The establishment division appointed the secretary of the ministry of education and training, Major (retd) Qamaruz Zaman, as the new ED on November 29 and terminated the contract of Dr Sohail Naqvi, who had held the position for the past nine years.
The board that governs the HEC consists of 17 members, including federal and provincial secretaries and vice-chancellors of universities, including private sector institutes. It is headed by the chairman and the premier is the final vetting authority. According to the HEC Act, the premier can appoint the HEC chairman and members of the board, but cannot have them removed.
The HEC consists of both contractual and permanent employees. The ongoing tussle began on July 29, 2012 when the HEC advertised the position of ED, as the second, and legally the last, extension of Dr Naqvi was coming to an end in September 2012. However, a ban was imposed by the federal government on fresh recruitment of contractual employees in all departments, including the HEC.
Thus the appointment process for a new ED came to a halt. On August 27 the commission renewed Dr Naqvi’s contract for another four years, although the HEC Act states that officials on contract cannot be given an extension for more than one term. Subsequently, the prime minister directed the HEC chairman on September 3 to rescind Dr Naqvi’s extension.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2012.