HEC pressurises varsities to start online classes

Commission overstepped its authority by directing varsities to form extra-statutory bodies for implementing lessons


Safdar Rizvi May 13, 2020
The commission overstepped its authority by directing varsities to form extra-statutory bodies for implementing virtual lessons. DESIGN: MUNIRA ABBAS

KARACHI: In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of educational institutions in the country, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) has started employing efforts to start online education in universities across the country without considering the ground realities and ignoring the absence of a proper LMS (Learning Management System) infrastructure in varsities.

To that end, the commission has started sending letters to universities in a bid to put pressure on them and compelling them to initiate online lessons in campuses as soon as possible. Per sources, the approach has been adopted so that the HEC could prove to the federal government that it lived up to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis and compensated the disruption of classes through virtual classes.

To achieve the goal, the HEC has directed both public and private universities to set up extra-statutory bodies to execute online education while transgressing their legal limits and ignoring their existing constitutional bodies. The Managing Director of HEC’s Quality Assurance Agency Dr Nadia Tahir wrote letters to the vice-chancellors of universities and issued directives to set up online academic councils to oversee the process, thus challenging the autonomy of universities.

Online Education is here to stay

Interestingly, it appears that the Chairman of HEC Dr Tariq Banuri was unaware of the contents of the letter and they were sent without his approval. When contacted by The Express Tribune to shed light on the creation of any extra-constitutional bodies in universities, Dr Banuri maintained that the guidelines sent to the universities clearly stated that they must assign the responsibility of executing online classes to a decision-making body.

“We made it clear in the letter that a university, at its discretion, could either assign the task to an existing body or form a special one for the purpose,” Dr Banuri said.

Meanwhile, a copy of the letter received by The Express Tribune clearly stated that universities should regularly implement HEC’s policies and adopt the standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding online classes. The letter also mentioned that the commission has sent a draft model policy in this regard, adding that the model policy should be submitted by universities to their decision-making bodies as soon as possible.

According to the draft model policy prepared by the HEC, a formal decision-making body should be set up to approve the online launch of existing courses. In case of any disagreement or inconsistency in the decision to execute the courses, an online education policy document should be handed over to the online accreditation committee of the HEC, earlier referred to as Online Academic Council.

Per the draft model guidelines, universities could also choose alternate options in the adoption of the policy. The first solution was related to the formation of an ad hoc committee comprising faculty deans and headed by the vice-chancellor of the university. The other proposed alternative suggested the constitution of a part-time or interim committee of the academic council, while the third option was to designate existing academic councils of the universities as their online academic councils.

Online education navigates uncharted territory

The letter further said that the university should create transparent SOPs to transform existing courses into online education. It is noteworthy that the suggestions provided in the letter toward the creation and implementation of the SOPs also called for action against the teachers' community in case they failed to implement the online education policy. The letter surprisingly stated that the department head must ensure that faculty members meet all the HEC requirements for online classes.

Besides, faculty deans should obtain assurances from department heads and send them for approval to the HEC’s Online Academic Council or the Online Accreditation Committee. The online council or committee would then seek students’ feedback related to performance.

In case of a problem, the department heads and faculty members would be asked to resolve it. However, if the department head or the faculty provided any incorrect information regarding the students, action would be taken against them.

The Express Tribune sought the stance of Karachi University’s Director of Quality Enhancement Cell (QEC) meritorious professor Jamil H Kazmi, who categorically stated that the University of Karachi condemned the directions given by the HEC as they amounted to tarnishing the autonomy of the university, its collective consultation process, and collective wisdom.

“The university does not intend to create any interim committees for the implementation of its Learning Management System,” he said. “The autonomy of the University will only be respected when its decisions are taken within the jurisdiction of its statuary bodies.”

Expressing the standpoint of the teaching community, Dr Anila Amber Malik, the president of Karachi University Teachers’ Society and the former president of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) Sindh Chapter, said that the association does not believe in any extra-constitutional bodies proposed by the HEC.

“Our members will not follow the suggestions of the HEC in this regard. The universities only consult their existing constitutional bodies for the execution of online education if need be,” she said. “The HEC has exceeded its limits by issuing such a directive,” she said, adding that the academic councils of the universities will take care of the issue on its own.”