Higher Education Commission — under renewed threat

Published: February 6, 2013

The writer is a former federal minister for science and technology and served as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission from 2002-08. He is currently president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences

There has been a major transformation of the landscape of our universities under the Higher Education Commission (HEC) during the last decade. Six of our universities are now ranked among the top 500 of the world. There were none in the year 2002. Our international research publications have soared from about 600 annually in 2002 to about 8,000 annually in 2012, bringing us ahead of India in terms of research publications per million people. The period 2003-2008 was described as “a golden period” for higher education in Pakistan by the Chairman of United Nations Commission on Science Technology and Development, who also recommended that these policies should be emulated by other developing countries.

However there was a dramatic change for the worse in 2008 when the present government came into power. Attacks against the higher education sector started almost immediately in 2008 and have continued unabated since then. They have proved that the analysis and fears expressed by the world’s top science journal Nature in 2008 were correct. In an editorial in its August 28 issue, entitled “After Musharraf”, it had said that the PPP had a very poor record as far as support to education was concerned.

The HEC had found that 51 members of parliament had obtained fake degrees in order to contest elections and that there were another 393 who probably were in the same boat but simply refused to submit their documents for verification. It is these honourable ladies and gentlemen who ganged up against the HEC to teach it a lesson.

The first attack on the higher education sector occurred in May 2008 when the government decided to abandon the visionary projects for the establishment of a number of world class universities of engineering and technology in collaboration with a consortia of leading universities of Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Korea and China. This would have provided foreign degrees to Pakistani students and they were in the process of being established in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Sialkot, and later in Peshawar and Quetta. The project was abandoned three months before classes were to begin, and this angered the countries with whom the arrangements had been finalised. This was followed by a move to go back on the establishment of four law universities, one in each province. Another attack took place in September 2008 when the government decided not to release funds for thousands of students studying on HEC scholarships in foreign countries. This precipitated my resignation in protest, as I considered it unethical to continue to serve as chairman while the children of Pakistan were suffering abroad. The attacks, however, continued after my departure, with the budget being drastically slashed.

My successor, Begum Shehnaz Wazir Ali, and later Dr Javaid Laghari, fought on valiantly in spite of the difficulties that they faced. Then, on November 30, 2010, the government issued a notification shredding the HEC into pieces and devolving it to the provinces. I decided to fight and filed a petition before the Supreme Court. The Court declared the government’s steps unconstitutional and the HEC was thus saved from destruction, at least temporarily. The PM Secretariat then issued an order on November 26, 2012, that more or less sought to destroy the HEC’s autonomy and bring it under the Ministry of Education. An order was issued by the Establishment Division on November 28, appointing a retired major, who is secretary of the Ministry of Education, as CEO (executive director) of the HEC in place of the brilliant Dr Sohail Naqvi. Under the law that governs the operation of the HEC, this was illegal as it is only the 18-member Commission that has the powers to appoint all officers, servants and advisers (Section 12, of HEC Ordinance on Appointment of Officers etc.). The Commission can make its own rules and appoint officers without any external interference, and it is this autonomy that has been one important reason for its outstanding success so far. I filed a petition before the Supreme Court, and the Honourable Court declared the government takeover attempt illegal. However, the present Minister of Education (whose own degree has been challenged in the Lahore High Court) was not to be deterred. He has been behind a move to change the law so that the HEC could be formally converted to the failed UGC (University Grants Commission) that existed under the Ministry of Education prior to October 2002.

What are the reasons behind the latest attacks? 1) About 393 MPs may not be able to fight the next elections if their degrees are scrutinised and if it is found that they were forged. They would be disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution that require integrity to be a key eligibility requirement. 2) The term of the present chairman is proposed in the amendments to be slashed from four to three years, mainly so that the present government could appoint an obedient chairman of its choice before the election — Dr Javaid Laghari is considered too independent and has completed three years of his four-year term. 3) The financial powers of the HEC are proposed to be taken away from it under an amendment to the law, as proposed by the Ministry of Education. It should be remembered that the HEC’s annual budget is Rs44 billion and that most universities have lands worth billions. A docile HEC, operating like the old UGC, could allow corruption to occur without hindrance. 4) Scholarships worth billions are awarded after competitive exams strictly on merit, and ‘recommendations’ from ministers are ignored — the corrupt politicians have their eyes on these too.

That battle is currently on. All the vice-chancellors are strongly opposed to the latest attempt by the government to destroy the HEC. The chairman of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education Rohail Asghar is himself a very honest and educated person. I am confident that he will not allow those who want to destroy the HEC to have their way.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Sindhi_Pakistani
    Feb 7, 2013 - 12:12AM

    We support strong HEC and it should be free from political intervention but people of smaller province also want devolution of HEC in respective provinces as per 18th amendment.It is duty of state to devolve it and follow constitution, otherwise what is use of 18the amendment, if it is not implemented in letter & spirit? Pls support devolution of HEC into respective provincial centers. But each province should be compelled to make HEC an effective,and independent authority.

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  • Mirza
    Feb 7, 2013 - 12:46AM

    I know some people love generals and hate poor common citizens. However when you use the term for elected legislature “ganged up” then you show your true color. I am not against higher education in fact the min degree in my household is a doctoral degree. But I have to resign with the fact that my vote is equal to an ordinary man’s vote and nothing more than that. The degree condition for parliamentarians was unconstitutional and imposed by an army dictator and is deleted by the SC. In a country where thousands of doctors and dentists are practicing without a degree how can one man expect the legislature to have degrees? Even in the US where 12 grade education is free and mandatory there is no such condition to contest the elections. So forget about the reforming of legislature to your will. The voters would decide in the coming and subsequent elections. It is a shame that an educated person calls the legislature who makes and amends laws a gang. What would your grandkids think about these statements down the road?
    The problem with Pakistan is meager resources. The monies spent on a few thousand privileged and already educated student would be better spending on poor students for their primary and secondary education. The higher education students if deserving should get foreign scholarships and not siphon monies from poor masses that are left without any education. Would you send a few sick people for complicated surgeries overseas for months and years while ignoring thousands of sick people who need only a small amount of money for basic healthcare? The same money can change the lives of many thousands of children at home rather than a few elites.

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  • John B
    Feb 7, 2013 - 2:11AM

    Without arguing for or against the HEC, it is nevertheless imperative that all public institutions that receive funds from exchequer must answer to the parliament. HEC cannot be a totally autonomous institution doing its own thing without in tune with legislature policy decisions and manifesto.

    Degree for politics is an abandoned idea in democracy, like property ownership, and it disenfranchises millions of average PAK citizens, and gives rise to ruling class. Until PAK considers the illiterate masses and Oxford returns are one and the same in public life, there is no equality and true democracy.

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  • Roni
    Feb 7, 2013 - 2:35AM

    You have had a very long lucrative career and jobs. Please fade away with dignity or join political party but do not use the education like mullahs use religion for their benefits and glory. You had your moment under the sun but nothing lasts forever give somebody young a chance to shine. Show some respect to the poor masses of the country and do not act like an elite general. Good bye.

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  • Rabia
    Feb 7, 2013 - 3:11AM

    We have to enhance our spending in education like what our neighbouring country India and China are doing. Otherwise we will lagging behinds by many decades to them.
    In comparison to India, they have many provinces but its higher education is strongest central board. So we should not devolve HEC to provinces. Universities should be the subject of centre.
    What Indian University commission recently did one can read in this report.

    http://www.dst.gov.in/Vision_Document.pdf

    please let HEC as autonomous as it is now at least.
    If Govt keep continue this bill regrading HEC than we have to pay high price in future. Time will tell us we were wrong.

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  • Feb 7, 2013 - 3:52AM

    @Mirza:

    You’re a doctorate holder and you’re showing that off while at the same time showing your complete ignorance over the content of the article. It’s not that those legislators have fake degrees, it’s that they lied and toyed with the emotions of thousands of people. How do you expect us to prosper when YOU want us to elect cheats and liars and murderers to our legislature?

    Nobody is saying the legislature needs to bow down to any one man’s wishes. It needs to bow down to the mandate of the people who put it their in the first place. The HEC raised the standards of Pakistani universities across the board. It has a budget of 44 billion rupees. Compare that to the military’s 800 billion, because those cheats will always be blackmailed into doing the bidding of those who are truly in power. When you keep electing uneducated medieval mindset landlords, you will never be able to spend the monies for basic education like you say would happen. Has it happened in the last 5 years? There was the Parha, Likha Punjab scheme and that was scrapped. The curriculum hasn’t been updated in 5 years. And you think shutting down HEC will help propel Pakistan to the ends of the world. Grow up sir. It’s high time you grow up.

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  • Mirza
    Feb 7, 2013 - 8:44AM

    @Roni:
    Thanks Roni. I agree that this gentleman should fade away at the end of his career and not indulge in politics. The fake degrees were to satisfy the fake and unconstitutional dictates of a military general which were unconstitutional. It is like people cheat when they have no options and the Draconian laws are imposed on them. First came the unlawful conditions then the fake degrees. The SC ended the illegal law and there is no need to create fake degrees. All Qadianis in Pakistan are forced to file papers that they are not Muslims even though they believe they are Muslims. When they go out of Pakistan they openly call themselves Muslims not in Pakistan. These Draconian laws are the cause of lies and cheating.
    Cheers,
    M

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  • Correctpoint
    Feb 7, 2013 - 10:15AM

    @Mirza

    There is difference between having a Doctorate degree and being a Doctor.

    How can the minimum degree in your household be PhD when it is the highest degree awarded?

    If you want to say there are a lot of MBBS doctors in your family that is another matter as it is somewhat equivalent to Bachelor degree.

    So get your facts straight

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  • Dooli
    Feb 7, 2013 - 10:16AM

    In this morning’s news it was reported, Mr Rohail Asghar and his party PML(N) has decided to stand by the HEC. Excellent. I am no fan of (N) but this party is seems to be the only one who has taken action against its own people when ther fake degrees were discovered. I am sure it is a politicaly gainfu stand aso, as the Universities and research centres in Punjab have benefitted the most. This benefit was not due to any bias but the simple fact that agriculture and healthcare research institutes of Punjab wrote good projects and PC-1s for thier institutes and got the money to develop thier schools and centres.

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  • Kashif
    Feb 7, 2013 - 11:03AM

    There is no issue of HEC. But govt is doing all that with HEC for its principle stand against fake degree holders. HEC have to pay that price for standing honest in this country. After all it is matter of 300 parliamentarians in provinces and centre and govt is in pressure to deal this HEC honesty before election. In order to let them contest next election.
    May be some political parties make mass moment against govt anti educational measure.
    Mr Atta ur Rehamn is most celebrated brain of Pak most of Pakistani people can not understand him as they have limited vision.

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  • Mirza
    Feb 7, 2013 - 11:11AM

    @Correctpoint:
    Ever heard about MD, or JD? All I was saying that we love education and value it but do not have elitist attitude. My vote is the same as a janitor in a hospital or on the street. The writer or I cannot be superior to any other person even if that person was a criminal his vote would have the same impact as mine. This may be the only weakness of democracy but I have learned to live with it.
    Regards,
    M

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  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Feb 7, 2013 - 12:03PM

    While reading Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman article, I was reminded of Sir Edmund Hillary who, when asked as to why he wanted to conquer Mount Everest, said words to the effect “Because it is there”

    I suppose having conquered (demolished) nearly all big state institutions, our government could not have left HEC unconquered, because that would reflect badly on its ability to overcome all hurdles and to meet all challenges, proving much-more-than-equal for each one of them.

    And of course the victory would be a many splendored thing, with all the power and perks that would go with it.

    To my friends who feel HEC must be devolved under the 18th amendment, I would say that the scale at which work is done at the HEC, makes it unviable to be devolved because the provinces may not have the requisite resources in finance, talent, and independence to handle the job in addition to this replication at provicial levels proving too costly due to duplication of the same activity at provincial levels. What is most likely to happen is that the bulk of the funds of HEC would be wasted away by the provincial HEC officials on paid holidays, disguised as official tours to ‘study’ higher education systems abroad, with another big chunk spent on maintaining luxurious offices and providing them perks, with hardly anything left to spend on the real purpose of the commision, which is to promote higher education, science and technology levels in Pakistan.

    It is a real shame that the exports of even a relatively modest business unit in a small European country far exceeds that of our country’s overall export targets, and the main cause for this is our lagging behind in the field of higher education, science and technology. In order to regain the lost ground, and to bring the country somewhere near the developed world, fast-paced development plans are necessary, which can be devised and implemented only by a team of high calibre individuals, working in an institution formed on all-Pakistan basis and enjoying autonomous status.

    Karachi
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  • Arbab Zahid
    Feb 7, 2013 - 2:49PM

    Worth of HEC is not more than one-eyed in the midst of blinds. It is over-crowded with the inefficient staff and perpatuates the red-tapism in education sector. In a single section there are multiple employees with the same job titles and jobs descriptions, which is an evident precedent of redundancy and a clear proof that it is being run by incompetent managers.
    Once the scholar is enrolled in any unversity, there is not further coordination between the concerned offices of HEC with the respective university regarding the payment of tution fees and stipends. Students have to go round and round from one office to other in order to provide HEC with the progress reports, fund utilization proformas, invoices, acknowledgments etc etc. After dispatching the required documents to HEC, students have to wait for months and sometime years for the release of stipends and other allowances.
    Replying the emails or attending the phone calls are not in there in the rules of this institution. Even the chairman Mr. Laghari, once in an interview to a private news channel claimed that he personally reply each and every email, but the reality is opposite to this claim.
    HEC should be devolved to provinces so that students might access the offices instead of waiting for emails to be replied.Recommend

  • Feb 7, 2013 - 5:05PM

    lets out of the rotten centralist approach. The provinces should and can have their own HEC, we are a federation and not central governing country. Appreciate the views but focus on how the provinces can be strengthened to have their own systems.

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  • sohail khan
    Feb 7, 2013 - 8:08PM

    There are some questions for which when you will find the answer you will understand what HEC is.

    How can we excel in Higher Education when we have poor primary and secondary education ?
    What pay the Chairman Higher Education Commission is getting?
    How many patents have been registered by the Universities funded by HEC in last 12 years?
    What steps the HEC had taken for the appointment of Vice Chancellors on merit ?
    HEC has claimed that the number of research papers has improved then did the HEC had given citation and impact factor of such research papers ?
    How much foreign currency have been going out in term of stipend and tuition fee of foreign scholars ?
    What are the rankings of the universities in the world where these scholars are studying ?
    Why HEC is giving its major funding to NUST and COMSAT ?
    Who is the key partner of COMSAT.
    Are HEC development funds audited ? Where are the reports of irregularities ?
    Which province has taken the major funding and scholarships ?

    These questions are just few.. Just to open eyes..

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  • Zaheer
    Feb 7, 2013 - 8:24PM

    I support HEC for these 2 reasons:

    1) I have not seen any corruption charge about Dr Sohail Naqvi, Mr Lagari or any corruption or even mismanagement proven case against Dr Atta ur Rehman.
    2) We can list many wrong things that Musharraf regime did with Pakistan, but no one has ever raised finger towards the performance of HEC.

    Also can anyone tell me if HEC is so corrupt, then why all the leading international donors trust it and ready to give funds to HEC and not to Pakistani government or for that matter to any other institition?

    I live in Sindh and i can tell you honestly, the day HEC come under provincial authority, it will lose it crediblity and you will see ‘jali’ degrees endorsed by this very HEC(Sindh).

    Mark my words.

    Except Punjab, no other province has the ability to even think of running such an institution at provincial level.

    So i beg government, please do not play with this prestigious institution.

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  • Wajahat
    Feb 7, 2013 - 8:48PM

    @Mirza:

    Excellent analogy in the last paragraph. I would take this analogy one step further –

    “Would you send a few sick people for complicated surgeries overseas for months and years while ignoring thousands of sick people who need only a small amount of money for basic healthcare? The same money can change the lives of many thousands of children at home rather than a few elites.”

    I would rather give an example of cosmetic surgeries instead of complicated surgeries – complicated surgeries are life saving but cosmetic are not. PhDs already have enough education to sustain their family.

    Plus even if those PhDs come back, they do so for a while just to fulfill the formality and legal conditions. They head back very soon.

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  • Dilbar Jahan
    Feb 7, 2013 - 9:18PM

    …and later in Peshawar and Quetta! huh!

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  • Arbab Zahid
    Feb 8, 2013 - 1:57AM

    @Dilbar Jahan
    I am surprised at your sarcastic ‘huh’, do you think people from Peshawar and Quetta are incompetent to run any institution ? Maneuvring by certain forces to impose bungling ruler like Raisani and ridiculing approach by apathetic minority like you have alienated the people of smaller provinces from the federation.

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  • bball
    Feb 8, 2013 - 8:09PM

    As opposed to professional degrees, PhD’s are almost exclusively funded by universities in u.s. – hardly anyone pays for PhD studies because the degree is academic in nature, unlikely to be funded by mmost. The joke on us is that the poor state of Pakistan is paying for those degrees in millions of dollars that are provided for free for others. What an irony!

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  • iqbal
    Feb 8, 2013 - 9:46PM

    which institution did the ranking? I think that none of our universities exists in top 500 around the world. Quality of Research papers published in the last decade is also known to every scholar and who says that we are ahead of India in research? Can any one have the data of how many students who topped their respective departments joined teaching in universities?

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  • tahmina
    Feb 9, 2013 - 10:32AM

    @Mirza:

    Why should foreign governments give their tax payer funded scholarships to Pakistanis?

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  • tahmina
    Feb 9, 2013 - 10:38AM

    @Mirza:
    If a parliamentarin lies, it is a crimes in any democracy, have illitrates in the parliament and then gets the legislation done, which they can not write or read – perhaos that would be the ideal democracy Pakistan is striving for. Reward liers.

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