These are interesting times. We just heard the heart-rending narrative on the dismal state of elementary education. Before we could declare the prescribed educational emergency, there are warnings of an impending disaster in higher education if the HEC is devolved to the provinces. The provinces, it is said, have made a mess of elementary education and the fate of higher education will be no different. It is hard to understand the argument involved here. Should all education then be assigned to the federal government? If provinces are nothing but mess makers, why devolve anything to them. The celebration over the unanimous passage of the Eighteenth Amendment was completely uncalled for.
The constitutional position is quite clear though. Before the Amendment, the subject of ‘higher education’ was not mentioned in any of the legislative lists. The federal legislative list, part I, which is the exclusive domain of the federal government, contained entry 16, related to federal agencies and institutes for research, technical training and the promotion of special studies. It also had entry 17, covering Pakistani students abroad and foreign students in Pakistan. These entries have not been touched by the Eighteenth Amendment. This is the only role in education that the federal government has got left after the Eighteenth Amendment.
Entry 32 talked about the planning and coordination of scientific and technological research. This has been moved to the federal legislative list, part II, as entry 7. Part II is the domain of the Council of Common Interests or the federation and not just the federal government. Part II It had no entry related to education before the Eighteenth Amendment. Entry 38 of the concurrent list, allowing both federal and provincial governments to legislate, related to education as a whole. It included “curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education.” With the abolition of the concurrent list, all but one of these functions, along with the organisations performing these functions for the country as a whole, stand devolved. An exception has been made for the important function of standards of education in the case of higher education. A new entry, number 12, “Standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions” has been placed under the federal list, part II.
Not only that, but the most important function of the HEC, the standards of higher education, has not been devolved, but it gets specific constitutional recognition for the first time. Maintenance of standards entails quality control, accreditation, degree verification and recognition at national and international levels — all requiring a regulatory role. Like all other regulatory bodies, this function has been assigned to the federal legislative list, Part II. In the presence of a successor, a professional regulatory body, the question of differential national standards or non-recognition of degrees abroad does not arise. It has been presumed, incorrectly, that the successor body is the cabinet division and its generalist deputy secretaries and section officers. Under the rules of business, all federal agencies have to liaise with the cabinet or its committees such as the ECC (economic coordination committee) through a federal division. In the case of regulatory bodies, it is important to keep them away from the divisions with which they have a conflict of interest. For example, Nepra is not with the water and power division, but with the cabinet division. Most regulatory bodies are, therefore, with the cabinet division, which has no direct interest in their business. What has been done in the case of standards of higher education is no different. This commission will also have to have its own law.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2011.