Some glaring examples of PTI government’s ‘shoot in its foot’ interventions relate, unfortunately, to higher education. One was the grossly unmerited removal of an acknowledged reformer from the chair of HEC well before the end of his term. This was done at the behest of vested interests by a government claiming to wage a jihad against such interests. The other, pushed by the same vested interests, is the thoughtless establishment of new universities at a time when the existing universities are failing to meet their current financial liabilities. Good news is, however, coming.
In the first case, the detailed judgement of the Islamabad High Court regarding the restoration of the Chairperson has now been made public. It is a severe indictment of the executive’s lack of respect for public interest and fundamental rights. It all started with a prime ministerial directive to the education minister to convene a stakeholders meeting, including the Chairperson of PM’s Task Force on Science and Technology, to discuss administrative, financial and performance issues of the universities. The minutes of the meeting reveal concerns related to Covid-19, plans for distance learning and the need to amend the HEC Ordinance, without stating their nature. A report was submitted to Prime Minister’s Office with the proposed amendments that were approved by the cabinet, followed by the issuance of two amending ordinances and eventually the approval by the Parliament. All this was done at lightning speed. According to the judgement, “The role of the Chairman PM’s Task Force was significant in the entire process. It has become obvious from the record that he appears to have been affected by the policies of the HEC and the resistance is affirmed from the correspondence. The factor of conflict of interest should have been taken into consideration by the policy making executive authorities.” He was resisting academic audit by the HEC of Rs40 billion utilised by institutions of his direct or indirect interest. Instead of dealing with this conflict and respecting the autonomy of the HEC enshrined in law, notifications were issued to remove its Chairperson. The court declared these notifications illegal, as “the competent authority to appoint or remove the Chairperson under the HEC Ordinance is the Controlling Authority i.e. the Prime Minister”. Even the competent cannot remove the Chairperson before the expiry of the term “save on the proven charges of corruption, inefficiency, permanent disability or failure to attend to consecutive meetings without intimation in advance”. The government has not given up and has gone into appeal. All eyes, all hopes are now fixed on the Supreme Court.
In the second case, the Senate Standing Committee on Federal Education has rejected the Pak University of Engineering & Technology Bill, 2022 earlier passed by the National Assembly. It observed that instead of establishing new universities, the existing universities should be strengthened. If any new disciplines/subjects are to be introduced, the financial resources should be utilised to enrich the existing institutions.
In an earlier column, ‘No more universities’ (September 10, 2021), we had pleaded: “It can be said without fear of contradiction that quantitative expansion of the universities is always and invariably at the expense of quality. This time around, however, it has to stop, nay, a time bound moratorium is required, to save the universities already there from closure. Even well-established universities are unable to pay visiting faculty, temporary staff, and pensions. Maintenance of services is short-funded, and in some cases, salaries of permanent staff have been delayed or paid less than fully.” It seems that a first step has been taken.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2022.
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