A blow to higher education By Tayyab Safdar and Rabea Malik - Wednesday 13th April 2011

THE attempt to devolve HEC to the provincial level affects public university students, current and prospective scholars in national and international universities, lecturers on tenure tracks in national institutions, as well as the employees of HEC.
It’s not clear whether the government has taken either HEC’s contribution to higher education or the dire and far-reaching consequences on all stakeholders into full consideration whilst deciding to devolve the institution.
In a country where public-sector entities are synonymous with corruption, HEC’s achievements are heartening. Scholarships are awarded on merit providing many deserving students the opportunity to study in some of the best universities in the world, engage in research via-post doctoral programmes and establish long-term linkages with renowned academics. To date, 5,000 international scholarships and 9,000 indigenous scholarships have been awarded.
Incentivising people to return and work for the country through appropriate clauses in the scholarship agreements as well as research grants and university placements locally the HEC has ensured that investments translate to increased human capital.
The commission has also invested in upgrading physical infrastructure in public-sector universities by setting up research laboratories, providing a strong impetus for increased research substantiated by the greater number of research articles. HEC has also ensured maintenance of uniform quality standards nationally through faculty training and quality assurance projects.
Over the last decade there has been a marked improvement in higher education in the country. The commission was founded by a presidential ordinance in September 2002. It was a successor to the largely moribund University Grants Commission.
HEC’s achievements have at times been overshadowed by a number of controversies, especially in recent months, the biggest being the attestation of parliamentarians’ degrees. In many developed countries, this scandal would have entailed resignations and perhaps the initiation of criminal proceedings. In Pakistan it resulted in a strong backlash from the political establishment. One accusation was that HEC wanted to ‘derail democracy’.
HEC’s autonomy has also been a thorn in the side of politicians as well as bureaucrats, who were next in-line to have their degrees attested. The vice chancellors of public-sector universities have also on occasions criticised HEC’s autocratic style, whilst demanding more autonomy and funding. Similarly there have been some charges of nepotism and favouritism in the posting of officials and the retention of staff which have passed their age of superannuation.
Despite all these criticisms, a hasty, unplanned devolution of HEC is not an answer to the problem. It is difficult to ignore the vested interests behind this decision. The question of the legality of devolution of a federal body independent of the Ministry of Education remains.
Furthermore, there is a pressing question of the governance capacity at the provincial level. HEC staff — whether in dealing with scholarship programmes or research collaborations or monitoring of national research standards — collectively represents a very specific skill set. Autonomy of HEC has allowed the staff to maintain a good record and high standard of merit based decision-making.
At the provincial level there is little evidence to suggest the education departments, have the skill set necessary to take on management of the many different functions. The question of provincial autonomy aside, given the nature of governance necessary for ensuring universal standards of higher education, the need for a national regulatory body will always remain. Other reservations can be worked out by sitting together and fleshing out boundaries of the commission, revising laws so as to make the hiring process more transparent etc.
The mandate of HEC may be debatable but considering all costs to all stakeholders including students, lecturers and researchers in public universities who have been working towards their tenure track positions, the true stakes of an unplanned devolution become very high. Senator Rabbani has pointed out that student scholarships will not be affected; however in reality they are being affected.
This uncertainty has placed the future of many talented individuals at risk as HEC has postponed the latest awarded scholarships. This devolution has put a question mark over not only the HEC’s future but also that of current and prospective Pakistani scholars in top universities who have competed against the best.
As far as the retention of staff is concerned, in a country where military heads, civil servants even superior court judges are routinely given extensions for the ‘sake of continuity of the institution’, the argument also applies to the HEC. Devolving such a necessary and integral institution makes little sense, neither does it add to the autonomy of federating units.
The article does not ask the chief justice of the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter nor does it seek the intervention of the chief of army staff. Instead, it implores the political actors to understand the dire and far-reaching consequences of their decision in this regard. It is easy to dismantle an institution but harder to build one. It took a decade for this institution to develop its capabilities, which cannot be easily replaced.
The writers are HEC scholars at the University of Cambridge.

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/13/a-blow-to-higher-education.html

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