The state of higher education and universities

To achieve high standards, universities require a superior governance model and effective regulatory bodies

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah July 14, 2020
The writer is a former secretary to the Home and Tribal Affairs Department and a retired IG. He holds a PhD in Political Science. He currently heads a think tank, Good Governance Forum, and can be reached at [email protected]

My previous article on higher education and universities evinced a lively debate and generated valuable feedback, urging me to take up other issues marring the state of higher education in Pakistan. However, with a number of readers, frustration with the system was so high that they opined, it would be a voice in the wilderness with no notice in the corridors of power. Giving them hope, I responded that every one of us has to light the torch on his/her part to do away with the darkness.

With this aim in mind, universities being the highest seats of learning have to produce human resource for the knowledge-based economy. The better the university the better would be the human resource for the country’s other institutions. This equally applies to the human resource of the university as well at all levels including academics and administration.

To achieve high standards, universities require a superior governance model and effective regulatory bodies. While looking at the web pages of the universities, almost all universities have used beautiful phraseologies with claims of enhancing the quality of education but when analysed deeply, few match the set standards.

The governance of a university largely depends on adherence to the rule of law, financial discipline and conventions. For this the government has enacted the Universities Act, while the universities being autonomous bodies have framed their own statutes under the Act. Similarly, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is mandated to perform several important functions such as assurance of quality in higher education and research, formation of new universities, provision of funds, accreditation of universities and degrees, and coordination between universities and industries amongst other functions. The main task of the HEC is to “facilitate the development of the universities of Pakistan to be world class centres of research and development”. In this context, the HEC, Higher Education Department (HED) and the chancellors are the regulators to implement set standards.

The attainment of these loft goals no doubt requires financial resources. In this context, most of the political parties have accorded high priority to enhance quality of education in their manifestos with a promise to allocate at least 4% of the GDP towards it. But, hardly 2% is allocated and the quality of education remains abysmally low. The ambition to improve quality of education is itself noble but in the words of Faiz, “Yeh arzoo bhee bari cheez hai, magar hamdam visal-e-yaar faqat arzoo kee baat nahin” translated as “Yes, desire is important but oh! my friend, the night of union is not just a matter of our yearning.” Mere dreaming is not enough, it requires serious efforts to realise the dreams. In this context the question agitating the mind is: to what extent have the HEC, HED and the chancellors (governors) done justice to their role as a regulator by striving to ensure enhancement of the quality of education?

Concerns have been expressed both at federal and provincial government levels about the allocation of billions of rupees each year, especially in the wake of several scandals amongst some of the universities. Logically, the government through their regulatory bodies and the taxpayers (community) are within their right to seek accountability and transparency. The universities themselves through peer review and assessments and national accreditation agencies are quite aware of the importance of costs, assessment, student outcomes and overall academic quality.

The malaise in the governance of universities stem from failure to implement the law, rules, set policies and guidelines. Certain universities have incurred expenditure and creation of vacancies beyond last year’s budget without the passage of budget by the Senate, a serious violation of the General Financial rules. The positions of dean, pro-vice chancellors, registrar and other administrative offices provide value to the university. But, some of the vice chancellors in negation of the University Act, HEC guidelines and governmental policy, purposely fail to fill such nominations. Such positions are filled with cronies on an ad hoc basis, at times giving three charges to one person. This negates the good concepts of human resource management.

Presently, a number of universities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) are suffering due to failure to notify deans, pro-vice chancellors and appointments against administrative post in accordance with law. Although the summary for the appointment of pro-vice chancellors is pending with the chancellor, he is dilly-dallying the matter. This has created a legal vacuum in universities whereas the term of the vice chancellor has expired and the offices have fallen vacant.

The K-P governor, perhaps without reading the University Act, came up with an idea to further strengthen the vice chancellors of government universities in order to execute administrative affairs for the better performance of higher educational institutions amidst his concern over the performance of syndicates of different universities. The governor has to realise that the implementation of existing laws, rules, policies, decisions of the Senate and syndicate as well as chancellor is the key to good governance. Blowing hot and cold is harmful for the good of the universities. He has to be mindful that the greater the autonomy and powers, the greater will be the check and balances. Syndicates and senates of the universities act as a watchdog but unfortunately are not taken seriously. The syndicate of a university in most cases is the recommendatory body subject to the approval of the Senate. In case, the syndicate errs in decisions, the Senate can always correct it.

In fact, despite all good motives of the HEC, HED and the office of the chancellor suffer from capacity and time issues. Since the jurisdiction of the HEC extends to the whole of Pakistan, it is difficult to reach. Most of the personnel of the Commission attending the meetings of the bodies of the universities are either hired retired personnel or nominees from a university which keep on changing. Same is the case with HED. For instance, K-P has got 29 public-sector universities. The HED finds it difficult to spare suitable officers to attend the meeting of the syndicate and the Senate. Here also the officers keep on changing, therefore there is no coherence and implementation.

Enhancement of the quality of education can only be ensured by strict implementation of law, rules and policy guidelines, swift accountability and enhancing the capacity of the HEC, HED and office of the chancellor.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2020.

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