Devolution fundamentalists vs HEC chamchaas - Mosharraf Zaidi - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The debate about the status of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in a post-18th Amendment scenario is being presented in interesting ways. One version of the debate is that this fight pits those who favour a centralised Pakistani state, against a band of do-good federalist champions – whose only interest is the strengthening of provinces and their autonomy. This is the version that a lot of well-intentioned people believe to be true. Unfortunately, the graveyards of the world are full of good intentions.

Those who are presenting the HEC debate as a battle between centralists and federalists, are essentially (either knowingly, or unwittingly) behaving like devolution fundamentalists. Like all other kinds of fundamentalism, devolution fundamentalism is a way of seeing things, in this case, a post-18th Amendment Pakistan, in starkly black and white terms. This kind of essentialism requires advocates of a federal structure, to be advocates of provincial autonomy, which then requires those advocates to be advocates of stripping away central agency – or the centre’s right to legislate, regulate and navigate public policy – in any area deemed to be worthy of being devolved.

In the essentialist world view of the devolution fundamentalist, the reason the HEC must go is because it invades and occupies the province’s right to oversee the higher education sector. But the logical corollary of this is that the HEC’s existence is, by very design, an attack on provincial space. Of course, that’s not really the function of the HEC.

The HEC was designed in 2002, by the Steering Committee on Higher Education (SCHE) which counted among its members, the current PPP Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh (disclosure: I was also a key staff member for the SCHE). There were three key motivations behind higher education reform at the time. The first was to increase university enrollment which was, even by the highest estimates, no more than 280,000 at the time. The second was to improve the quality of university education through standardisation and quality assurance. The third was to ensure better governance and management of universities.

All three of these objectives required a dramatically improved financial allocation for university education, and right from its inception the HEC successfully lobbied for and achieved a quantum shift in higher education funding. From that point forward, the HEC represents one of the most important public policy successes in recent memory. But the HEC is far from perfect.

Even at its inception, there were debates about the correct balance within higher education. Dr Atta ur Rehman’s science and technology centric approach ended up being the primary focus of reform. This was countered by the approach favoured by other members of the SCHE who sought a greater role for humanities and arts in Pakistani universities. That debate is an important one that continues to this day.

Other entanglements and debates also ensued. Was it really worth the investment to have a tenure-track approach to teacher employment and retention, whilst not doing anything to change the permanent job status afforded to even lecturers at the BPS-17 level? Was buying accelerators for physics labs worth the investment, when many teachers required basic skills enhancement? These were debates worth having. The HEC may have been wrong about all of them, but they were debates that were relevant to higher education financing, regulation and quality assurance.

Today, in determining whether the HEC should or should not be retained as a regulatory body for higher education, the primary arguments for and against seem to be anything but relevant – either to higher education, or to the cause of a functioning federal state in Pakistan.

The other version of the HEC debate we have heard has been as thoughtless and politically poisonous as the devolution fundamentalists’ version has been essentialist. Raza Rabbani is as close as it gets to being a modern day Pakistani hero. The 18th Amendment may now be seen as an effort to assert Pakistani federalism, but it also deepened executive, legislative and judicial control over the country, it effectively removed the fingerprints of military autocrats from the constitution and achieved a rare and lasting sense of legislative achievement by a political class that never gets credit for the good, and always gets pinned with blame for the bad. Rabbani was and remains the instrumental clog that enabled the 18th Amendment to be passed.

So the version of the debate, as framed by HEC defenders, is as ridiculous as the first. Rabbani is not a partisan PPP hack, jealous and scared of the HEC’s ability to identify fake degrees. The HEC is not a flawless organisation whose integrity and achievements are beyond reproach. This is not a battle between those who want education and prosperity in the country versus those who want feudal raj.

Those who are making such claims or implying that such a divide exists, are the opposite of devolution fundamentalists. They may be acting out of innocent concern for higher education, but they end up seeming to be HEC chamchaas.

Pakistan doesn’t need any devolution fundamentalists, or HEC chamchaas. The truth is that a lot of what the HEC does is legally still the domain of the federal government or the central agency to which the government has delegated authority - in the HEC’s case this has been done statutorily through the HEC Ordinance 2002. Quality assurance and standardisation remain important. So too does the ability to shut down universities if they are not providing the minimum benchmarked quality of education. These are legitimate post-18th Amendment federal functions.

The big question is financing. Here, the provinces have a reasonable, but potentially dangerous case. Senator Rabbani would do well to avoid the path of the devolution fundamentalist, by ensuring that his proposed solutions address reasonable concerns without exposing universities, students, and teachers to very high and unnecessary risks.

The problem is simple. Instead of routing money through the HEC, provinces want the money for universities in their jurisdiction to flow through the province. This is a legitimate demand. But the risk here is off the charts. Not only do provinces not have adequate capacity. There are more urgent worries. What if a given province decides to take the money and spend it on handouts for the poor, under the Benazir Income Support Programme? Or take the money and build a new ring road around a big city? Or a new underpass? Or new bullet proof vests for its policemen?

A fiscally autonomous province should be free to make those decisions. But a sane and responsible provincial government would not make them at the expense of university financing. An inter-provincial mechanism could solve this problem. So too could statutory provincial ring-fencing of higher education budgets – both recurring and development. There is a solution here somewhere, if we’re willing to find it.

A federal HEC that ensures quality, and enforces standards is not inconceivable. A provincial financing mechanism for universities that ensures adequate and sustained levels of funding is also not inconceivable. We need not be devolution fundamentalists or HEC chamchaas to achieve all this.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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