Institution building is an arduous task, and it requires vision, strategy, resources and leadership. It takes consistent efforts, teamwork and perseverance to realise an institution’s mission. There are many institutions, some known and widely publicised and some not so known and doing good work quietly, that we have built in different fields of national life. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) is one of the institutions that we can be very proud of. What has it done that merits our praise and protection, and why does it need to be retained?
In my view, it has played a key role in expanding the national network of public universities and establishing standards for higher education. In my recent visit to the University of Gujrat, the sight of its beautiful brand new buildings, with a medical college and other faculties, set on previously agricultural land attached to a shrine, illustrated something refreshing about the growth of the university system in Pakistan. There are 9,000 students on campus and in its constituent colleges, and what is more inspiring is that 70 per cent of the students enrolled are girls who come from remote villages and small towns of the area. This is just one example of a university that is not much known to the public.
Having been an academic myself for about four decades now, I have never seen so much flow of useful information from the HEC to improve the quality and standards of instruction, as I have observed during the past few years — something that non-performing institutions and academics find intrusive.
Higher education in public and private sectors has really taken off well through the HEC, which at this stage needs to be consistent with an eye on quality, rather than be replaced by a new department. Two areas need to be mentioned in this respect: The number of scholarships to pursue higher studies in Pakistan and abroad through a transparent and open merit system as well as grants for fellowship, scientific research and conferences. The scale of what has been and is currently being done in these fields is unparalleled in the history of our country. The HEC leadership persuasively sold its vision of uplifting higher education, notably to the Musharraf regime, which responded with greater, truly unprecedented flow of funds for this previously neglected sector.
All good institutions, and even the best ones, need evaluation, reform and constant restructuring to improve. The HEC cannot be an exception to this natural rule of development. Most of the critique over the years has come from two types of commentators. One is from the usual cynic brigade that sees no good happening in Pakistan, anywhere or by anyone except for what they do — spread pessimism and read our progress as accidental or inadequate. Others have set standards comparable to the best in international academia. Yes, we must raise our standards as high as possible but we must never loosen our grasp of the realities and constraints within which we function. The point that the HEC could do better in almost every area of its activity is valid, as it can be in the case of any other institution. This kind of critique is constructive in that its motive is the institution’s betterment.
Today, the issue is very different, it is not of reform and restructuring of the HEC but of its disinvestment and disbanding. The reasons why this is being done are shrouded in legality but have either political motivation or lack appropriate appreciation of what the HEC has accomplished or how, given its strengths and experience, it can contribute to the advancement of higher education in the country. Foreign scholarships, educational standards and evaluation of degrees and university performance are absolutely compatible with the letter and spirit of the 18th Amendment. Disintegration of the HEC will empower no one, do no good, save nothing.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2011.
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