For years, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has been the subject of censure by critics and a headache for parliamentarians facing scrutiny of their degrees. But their anger doesn’t match the furore over the planned transfer of the HEC’s functions to provinces.
Even though the 18th Amendment to the constitution ensured the devolution of several key areas to provinces, including education, the HEC’s management says it was not informed about its devolution. Executive Director Dr Sohail Naqvi said, “We were never told directly. It was decided on in a meeting of the implementation commission in late March, which we were not invited to or informed about.”
An aggressive campaign to ‘save the HEC’ has now dominated the media and public discourse. HEC chairperson Dr Javaid Laghari and his predecessor Dr Attaur Rahman have publicly advocated the cause. Vice-chancellors of universities have pledged their support, and students have protested in Islamabad and Peshawar over the future of their scholarships.
Raza Rabbani, the federal minister for inter-provincial coordination and the man in-charge of the implementation process of the 18th Amendment, says scholarships will not be affected by the devolution. The government’s stance is that the devolution is part of the implementation of the 18th Amendment.
The HEC’s argument hinges on the fact that the current federal legislative list includes: ‘Federal agencies and institutes for the following purposes, that is to say, for research, for professional or technical training, or for the promotion of special studies’, ‘Education as respects (to) Pakistani students in foreign countries and foreign students in Pakistan’ and ‘Standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions’.
The HEC’s role, as defined by the ordinance mandating its creation, is the “evaluation, improvement and promotion of higher education, research and development.”
Dr Rahman believes the HEC’s devolution will be a “monumental disaster”.
“It is a legal mistake. The HEC’s functions are protected under the 18th Amendment. If this goes ahead, it will be challenged in the Supreme Court.”
This issue did not arise when constitutional reforms were being deliberated by a parliamentary committee. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which oppose the HEC’s devolution, were represented on the committee.
Lawyer and activist Rafay Alam says, “The provinces have been asking for so long to return to a decentralised system. They should be given the HEC’s responsibilities. In the US, every state has its own universities, accreditation system etc. There hasn’t been any chaos there – why should we expect it to happen here?”
HEC gained public prominence with its role in verifying parliamentarians’ degrees. One theory doing the rounds is that HEC’s devolution will ease the way for legislators with questionable degrees. The Express Tribune recently reported that the functions of degree recognition, equivalence and attestation may be shifted to a new commission under the Cabinet Division.
Provincial governments would face political pressure to recognise legislators’ degrees, but according to Alam, “You could give anyone the job – even the GHQ – and they would still be under political pressure! Did the HEC not face pressure...how did it recognise Babar Awan’s doctorate degree?”
HEC’s critics have long asked for an investigation into the HEC. Writing in Dawn in 2008, noted nuclear physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy debunked many of HEC’s claims of success. According to Dr Hoodbhoy, only ‘cosmetic changes’ were made to higher education, most published papers were worthless academically and scientifically, the HEC had wasted funds and projects such as the ‘Pak European Universities’ never fully materialised.
Alam says there are serious problems with the HEC, including the charters given to universities and plagiarism by PhDs. The HEC has also been embroiled in other issues, including a case of placing graduates on the Exit Control List. The graduates alleged that the HEC had not placed them in jobs in Pakistan.
What happens next? The issue could end up in the Supreme Court. President Asif Ali Zardari has said he will personally look into the matter. While the government could bow to public pressure and appease political parties opposing the devolution, it will set the precedent that any ministry or government body that does not want to be devolved can have the decision reversed.
“This is a very difficult decision by a cash-strapped government facing a political and economic crisis,” said Alam. “How can the government justify paying so much money to PhDs – don’t get me wrong, PhDs are important – when the country has just gone through the floods?”
History of the HEC
The HEC was formed in 2002 during former President Pervez Musharraf’s administration, under the Higher Education Commission Ordinance 2002. It reports to the prime minister. Prior to the HEC, the University Grants Commission existed. Funding for higher education – via the HEC - was increased during the Musharraf era. Dr Attaur Rahman served as its first chairperson.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2011.
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