Devolution and HEC By Yaqoob Bangash - Tuesday 19th April 2011

WHEN I was in secondary school not everyone in my school could study for the ‘O’-Levels. The school conducted a test and if you passed, you were amongst the chosen few who were spared the horrors of the Matric examination.
In those days we even had to sign a statement that we were taking the ‘O’-Level examination since we hoped to proceed abroad afterwards, even if it were not true. The ‘O’-Level examinations were harder, more expensive, and some had to lie to sit for them — so why did students prefer it? The answer was simple: rigour, quality, credibility.
By the 1990s, the reputation of the boards of secondary education, under the provincial government, was appalling.
Corruption was rife, standards were falling, and at times the degree certificate was not worth the paper. Therefore students
looked towards the British system, which had until the 1990s been the preserve of a few elite schools.
The mushrooming of ‘O’- and ‘A’-Level schools throughout Pakistan was not only a testament of their good quality but a damning indictment of the local educational system. Higher education in Pakistan also fared no better. I remember family members quipping that one could fail in one university and obtain a first at another. Good university teachers were leaving for abroad and bad ones thriving. Absence of research and plagiarism were hallmarks of the Pakistani university system.
In this mess, the Higher Education Commission was established in 2002, replacing the almost inactive University Grants Commission. For all his faults, Gen Musharraf was correct in sensing that higher education in Pakistan was on the brink of total collapse and some life had to be injected into it.
The creation of a central powerful body for higher education fulfilled that purpose — the previous bodies had clearly failed to deliver. Since 2002, the HEC has revolutionised the higher education sector in Pakistan. Just to highlight a few of its achievements: in 2001 there were 59 universities in the country, now there are 132; enrolment in higher education has doubled to 5.1 per cent since 2001; over 5,000 students have been given scholarships for higher education in Pakistan and abroad; the number of PhDs awarded since 2003 now almost equals the total number of PhDs granted in Pakistan since 1947; research output has increased six-fold since 2002, and nearly Rs97bn have been pumped into higher education since 2002, as compared to $7.5bn from 1978 to 2002.
In addition, stringent quality control measures, anti-plagiarism drives and especially the verification of degrees made the HEC a model institution at home and abroad. Significant progress has been made, but a lot still needs to be done and the momentum sustained. (I am in no way arguing that the HEC has been perfect in all aspects — it has certain serious shortcomings too).
However, all these endeavours (including getting $250m for initiatives from USAID), are apparently not enough for the HEC to be saved from the rollercoaster of the 18th Amendment. Staunch federalists were indeed happy, and for good reason, that the 18th Amendment gave teeth to provincial autonomy and abolished the concurrent list of legislative subjects. True, provincial autonomy will certainly go a long way in making Pakistan a strong federal country which celebrates and promotes the diversity of its constituent units. Nevertheless, the repeal of the concurrent list when the provinces do not have the experience, resources or the ability to completely handle all the subjects in the list is a grave folly.
The issue of the HEC’s devolution is just the beginning of a whole series of shocks when federal institutions and laws are dismantled and responsibility transferred to the provinces. Criminal and civil procedures, marriage and divorce laws, environment policy and even the regulation of electricity, among several other things, are to be devolved to the provinces.
Once can only imagine the mass confusion different legislative and executive practices in the provinces will lead to!
No one, not even people in the HEC, would have objected to the devolution of the agency if all the provinces in Pakistan had shown their capacity to continue the work of the HEC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The education departments in all our provinces present a picture of corruption and lack the expertise and experience to run a provincial version of the HEC.
The dire situation of secondary education, still under the purview of the provincial governments, is evidence of their inability to steer higher education. So many schools in the country lack respect for the local educational system that a number of them no longer offer the Matric option to their students, and this includes some government-run schools.
It is true that the repeal of the concurrent list has put the responsibility of ‘Curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education,’ on the provincial governments, a move which necessitates changes to the HEC.
However, any substantial change in the HEC will certainly lead to a deterioration of higher education in Pakistan, and the federal government should have been careful on this count especially when the entire higher education establishment throughout the country is vehemently against the HEC’s devolution.
When the concurrent list was first envisaged in the Government of India Act 1935, its prima facie purpose was not to scale down provincial autonomy; its existence was due to the fact that the provinces at that time did not possess the requisite experience and ability to take up responsibility of all the subjects under the list. Due to our unfortunate history, our provinces are still unable to shoulder full responsibility for these subjects and it would be unwise and unfair to force these subjects upon them summarily.
Even in developed federal countries like Switzerland and Russia, there are still central institutions which coordinate policy and funding, so as to ensure certain standards and only in places like the US and Germany is higher education fully devolved — but that is due to their peculiar histories rather than a reflection of their federative principles. Pakistan is still a developing country, and while education should ideally be a provincial subject, let us not put the cart before the horse and retard higher education just when it is beginning to take off.
The writer is a historian at Keble College, Oxford.

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