If you go through the enactments placed on Sindh’s statute books during the last five years, especially after the 18th Amendment, you will find that nothing in this part of the world moves or functions without the blessings of the chief executive of the province, i.e. chief minister.
Be it the union council, the lowest tier of the local government institutions, or the higher seats of learning, i.e. the public sector universities, all have been made to survive and function on the pleasure of this ‘omnipresent’ chief executive.
A latest case in point is a law passed by the Sindh Assembly on Monday that empowers the government, construed to mean the chief minister, to take over the administrative, financial and academic control of almost all the universities and chartered institutes in the province.
Minutes earlier, the same session had adopted a bill on yet another local government system for the province. Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the new law, it is fifth in line of enactments which had been implemented and then overturned during the last three years, of course not to serve any public interest but either to please some group or to annoy some others.
Back in January 2011, the Sindh assembly passed another law empowering the chief minister to take over the control of all the examination boards in the province. Its implementation was, however, delayed till September 27, 2012, over the question of controlling authority between the governor and the chief minister.
And in February this year the assembly had also adopted a law to establish the Sindh Higher Education Commission which too would remain under the sole domain of the chief minister.
My learned friend, Raza Rabbani, while presiding over historic moments of crafting the 18th Amendment, would not bother for a minute to think what damage was being caused to the state of higher education in the country by diluting the Higher Education Commission to the provinces, besides the specialised healthcare institutions in public sector.
Coming back to the point, the new law has made substantive changes in the enactments regulating the public sector universities in the province allowing the government to take over administrative, financial and academic affairs of these institutions. Besides vesting the government with authority to appoint vice-chancellor, pro vice-chancellor, registrar, controller of examinations, chief accountant, bursar and resident auditor, it denies the universities of their freedom to set standards and criteria for the admissions.
The changes introduced through this law in the enactments regulating these institutions will not only undermine the merits but may lead to a decline in standard of higher education in the province. Little do the authors and proponents of this new law realise the adverse consequences this may have to the autonomy, functioning and the academic standards of the institutions of higher learning.
Admittedly autonomy cannot be taken to mean that government or society does not have a stake in the universities. But it must mean to include rights of the university to regulate its admission policies and criteria, to develop and evolve its curricula and courses of studies, to set the standards of its examinations and to select its own faculty - all without outside interference. And the state or government, as a guardian of public interest, must not indulge with the discretion and decision-making capacity of the universities in matters relating to academics.
I fear that already fragile system of higher education will be politicised following the erosion of managerial autonomy and academic freedom under this law. Mind it that academic freedom is integral to the idea of a university and autonomy is taken to mean the freedom of university to govern and manage itself.
Lastly, running the affairs of the universities by a highly polarised inward looking political dispensation, however democratic its representative character may be, is a bad omen that heralds the dooms day scenario for the education sector.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2013.
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