First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that Feisal Naqvi is a very dear friend of many years and Dr Sohail Naqvi, the Executive Director of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), his elder brother. But that did not prevent me in 2006 from penning two pieces (here and here) strongly criticising what I considered, at the time, to be HEC’s woeful lack of interest in promoting higher education in social sciences and humanities, the Commission’s focus being on hard sciences.
I considered this policy lopsided and against the interest of advancing critical thinking.
It is a measure of the maturity of the Naqvi brothers, a trait hard to find in these hard times, that I did not lose them. We discussed my criticism of the HEC. Points were made and conceded on both sides. Those exchanges have since helped me look more deeply into HEC’s work, realise the extent of the challenge as also the absolute imperative of having an autonomous body to oversee higher education. A body free of the administrative miasma generally associated with governments in Pakistan.
I have remained critical of the HEC but with greater empathy.
I give this background to position my arguments regarding a recent decision by the Establishment Division to strike at the autonomy of the HEC by appointing the Education Secretary as the Executive Director. Much has already been written about the illegality of that order. The HEC Chairman, Javaid Laghari, has rightly informed the Federal Government via his letter dated December 3, 2012, that the order to appoint the Secretary Education as ED-HEC is null and void. In any case, the issue is now sub judice and will be taken care of by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
My intention here is not to talk about the person of Dr Naqvi but the HEC and why that body must not be allowed to lose its autonomy.
First, a peek into the reasons for this stand-off. Governments in this country consider democracy to be a system where equality must be defined in terms of inefficiency. Let me explain: if three organisations among 50 are being run competently, so goes the thought, the lesson is not to get the other 47 to work efficiently but to make those three dysfunctional in order to create equality. It helps if, as is the case with the HEC, the annual budget is Rs48 billion, a definite attraction for those with oily palms. There is also the satisfaction of extending control and subordinating those in a functional organisation who refuse to fall in line.
Another way of putting it is that Drs Laghari and Naqvi could have remained nominally where they were, deriving full perks of their jobs, if they had allowed the Ministry of Education to do unto the HEC and its funds as it, and by extension the government, had pleased. Since the HEC refused to oblige, the Establishment Division made its move.
What would be the result if the government succeeds? The HEC covers 72 public-sector universities which employ more than 100,000 personnel in different categories. The Commission also directly controls 14,000 scholarships and supervises development projects worth more than Rs200 billion. This is big turf with big money. The fight, therefore, is purely over control of patronage and funds.
Perish the thought that this government would give any consideration to the negative fallout of its decision or the fact that its takeover of the HEC will cause a sharp decline in the standards of higher education. Or even that democracy, in its essence, when it is not illiberal in its functioning, is about the rule of law. The rule of law, in turn, is about Constitutionalism, a concept that developed alongside but independently of the form of democracy and is at the heart of the substance of democracy, as opposed to merely its form which is the case in this country.
But we have another, more pressing concern. We keep lamenting, and rightly so, that this country now suffers poverty not just in the sense of the increasing number of poor but in all senses of the word: poverty of thought; poverty of intent; poverty of action; poverty of courage, the list is long. And yet, we give nary a thought, because of poor thinking, to the fact that power in today’s world is a function of knowledge. Without knowledge and without the ability to think, we will never have the human resource to advance either our economic interests or our military ones. We are destined to remain backward and, yes, weak. And a weak nation is always treated like one, remaining servile and doing the bidding of the powerful.
Anyone who thinks this is about persons needs to look into history again: political, social, economic and military. Economic and military prowess is a function of social and political harmony; socio-political harmony is underwritten by the rule of law and the understanding of these interactions is a function of high-end human resource. And that human resource is begotten of knowledge. The interactive dynamic here is such that, to quote George Orwell, “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely”.
Let me state the obvious. We have extremely low-end human resource. This is directly owed to our poor education standards. There’s a debate in this country about which comes first, primary education or higher education. This debate misses the point that we need both. The primary and higher ends of education are not mutually exclusive. Nor can we ignore higher education until such time that we have provided primary education to everyone.
What is needed is to understand that improving human resource is crucial for our very survival and that requires focusing on education at all levels. The HEC needs constant improvement and monitoring but equally, it is one of the few government institutions in Pakistan that has functioned reasonably well. For that reason, the HEC must be left alone and autonomous, free from the ambitions of petty bureaucrats and the avarice of politicians.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2012.