After creating media havoc for a week, the revised ordinance about the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) autonomous status was approved by the federal government. The ordinance introduces several changes regarding the appointment and job duration of chairman and executive director.
As per the amendment in Section 6 of the HEC Ordinance, 2002, the chairperson can now hold the position for only two years instead of four. However, the duration of service for members and the executive director shall remain four years. Consequently, the chairperson has been ceased at once while the members and executive director of the commission stay.
The amendment in Section 11 curtails the commissions’ authority for the appointment of the executive director. Now the prime minister shall appoint an executive director on the Ministry of Federal Education (MOFE). Lastly, Section 9 of the amendment states, “all decisions of the MOFE or the Commission shall be expressed in terms of the opinion of the majority of its members present and voting.”
It appears the revised ordinance was put forward just to sack the chairperson and take the commission under the wings of the MOFE. The role of the ministry in the appointment of the executive director will politicise the hiring process. It is a critical position responsible for implementing the commission’s orders, decisions, and policies.
Involvement of MOFE in HEC matters means that it will now be the politicians rather than academics who will be making higher education decisions. The distribution of research funds and scholarships, and hiring of faculty will be influenced by the MOFE. This will undermine the mission of the HEC to improve and promote higher education, research, and development without any political interference.
At the same time, the battle between Dr Tariq Banuri and Dr Attaur Rahman has entered another level. In several recent op-eds, both have bashed each other for corruption and mismanagement. It shouldn’t have gone to that level as previously it was merely a clash of ideologies.
Banuri believes in widening and strengthening undergraduate teaching across the country and quality instead of quantity. Rahman’s approach, however, is more numerical: more scholarships, PhDs, research grants and research papers, etc. A clash of approaches between two schools of thought is normal. However, both parties have entered another level of personal attacks where policy debate has been left far behind.
The quality of undergraduate teaching is undoubtedly a critical issue, but that must have not been achieved at the expense of cuts to research grants and scholarships. The decrease in the total number of National Research Support Program (NRPU) and Grand Challenge Fund (GCF) grants has badly affected the sustainability of research groups across the country.
According to UNESCO, from 2000 to 2015, the number of students enrolled in higher education institutes worldwide increased from 99.7 million to 214.1 million. Accordingly, increasing the number of PhDs through national and foreign scholarship makes sense. However, there shouldn’t be any compromise on quality, and comprehensive reforms in the teaching and training of graduates are required.
A more balanced approach could be to let policies naturally evolve themselves. Whenever required, reforms can be introduced instead of total abandonment of the existing policies and replacing them with new ones. The quality of higher education can be worked on without compromising the already running funding and scholarship programmes. The HEC has contributed significantly to promote higher education with excellent scholarship, funding, and training programmes. It has enormously contributed to the education, training, and career development of thousands like me, and we wish to see it working and delivering as an autonomous body.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2021.