There is an old saying that if you find yourself in a ditch, the first thing you should do is stop digging.
Pakistan these days is in a deep ditch. Or, as memorably described by Stephen Cohen, “The country is in the metaphorical position of someone who has swallowed poison, sits on a keg of dynamite, is being shot at, all while an earthquake is rumbling through the neighbourhood.”
One of the few bright spots in this litany of bad news is the Higher Education Commission (HEC), generally recognised for having made great strides in promoting higher education. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the HEC is a lonely outpost of competence, the federal government appears inclined to push ahead with plans that would destroy the HEC as it currently exists. This is not a good idea.
There are two main arguments presented by those seeking to get rid of the HEC. The first argument is legal, i.e., that the destruction of the HEC is a necessary consequence of the 18th Amendment and the devolution of education to the provinces. The second argument is ideological, i.e., that the people of Pakistan will be better served if governmental powers to deal with higher education are devolved down to the provinces. Both arguments are not valid.
Let me deal with the legal argument first. Prior to the 18th Amendment, education was in the concurrent list, which meant that both the federal government and the provincial governments were constitutionally authorised to make laws dealing with education. The concurrent list now stands abolished and, therefore, the argument is that the power to deal with education issues now rests exclusively with provincial governments.
The legal argument is hopelessly flawed because it ignores the fact that the 18th Amendment specifically added a new entry (No 12) to Part II of the federal legislative list dealing exclusively with higher education (“Standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions.”). This entry was drafted and worded so as to cover the then existing role of the HEC because it was then agreed by all parties that the HEC would continue as it was. The legal argument that the HEC must disappear as a consequence of the 18th Amendment is, therefore, not correct.
Even otherwise, there are several entries in the federal legislative list which make it clear that many of the functions currently being performed by the HEC must necessarily be performed by the federal government, even if the HEC stops existing. These include item 16 (federal agencies and institutes for research or the promotion of special studies), item 17 (“Education as respects Pakistani students in foreign countries and foreign students in Pakistan”), and item 7 of Part II (“National planning and national economic coordination, including planning and coordination of scientific and technological research.”) Furthermore, as held by the Supreme Court in Elahi Cotton (PLD 1997 SC 582), legislative entries “cannot be construed narrowly or in a pedantic manner but [are] to be given liberal construction”.
In any event, the federal government will continue in all circumstances to deal with higher education. For example, if the HEC disappears, the federal government will still be in the business of validating degrees. However, instead of the HEC, the federal government wants this function to be performed by the cabinet division. Similarly, if the HEC disappears, monitoring international scholarship programmes will be the responsibility of the ministry of foreign affairs, while administrative control of the National Colleges of Arts will go to the ministry of inter-provincial coordination. And the list goes on.
The policy argument is equally flawed. To begin with, the policy argument is not based on the contention that the HEC has failed or is corrupt or anything of that sort. Instead, it is nothing more than the earnest belief than the devolution of higher education to the provincial governments will somehow, magically, produce better results than the current set-up. Like all faith-based arguments, it is impossible to refute. Nonetheless, here goes. The general theory in favour of devolution is that service delivery is best done if the service providers are locally available and locally accountable. For example, it is better if your local nazim is in charge of fixing roads than some anonymous bureaucrat in Islamabad or Lahore. This is because you can go yell at him, which is not something you can do if the relevant bureaucrat (or minister) is 500 miles away.
This theory simply does not apply to higher education. The object of regulating higher education is not to ensure that basic services are provided in a timely and competent manner but to ensure that the specialised institutions charged with issuing degrees actually meet internationally recognised standards. This is not a job which the local nazim can do, or even your average grade 17 bureaucrat. Has everybody forgotten that 15 years ago, a degree from a Pakistani university had zero credibility in the West? Do we really want to go back to those days?
There are other arguments against the HEC as well, but they are equally risible. Take, for example, the contention that the HEC should be devolved because our primary and secondary education systems are a mess. I completely fail to understand this argument. Just because we have screwed up primary education does not mean we should screw up higher education. I also fail to understand why we should hand over higher education to the same people (i.e. the provincial educational departments) which have made a hash of primary education.
The destruction of the HEC is serious business. In the short run, it will lead to the loss of $550 million in pledged aid for the higher education sector. In the medium term, it will lead to a collapse of institutional standards. As for the longer run, the argument that the provinces will somehow develop competent, autonomous, independent bodies to deal with higher education is simply a fond hope with no basis in reality, especially when those same provinces have till date failed to deal responsibly with primary and secondary education.
As I said in the beginning, we are in a deep hole. It’s time we stopped digging further.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2011.
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