EDITORIAL: The HEC controversy - Sunday, April 10, 2011

Much noise and fury has been expended regarding the perceived ‘dissolution’ of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Vice Chancellors, academics and students have all given voice (and in some cases rallies) to the apprehension that the HEC’s ‘demise’ would sound the death knell for higher education and in the process undo all the good work the HEC has achieved since it was set up under the Musharraf regime in 2002. The whole hullaballoo was punctured by the chairman of the Implementation Commission on the 18th Amendment, Mian Raza Rabbani, when he informed the Senate that a new commission is being evolved at the federal level to maintain higher education standards. Some of the erstwhile functions of the HEC, especially curriculum, syllabus, policy and planning are being devolved to the provinces. Perhaps some of the fears of the move’s critics are rooted in the fact that it is not yet clear how the provinces will handle these new responsibilities, through what administrative means, etc. The undeniable fact is that after the 18th Amendment, education has been devolved to the provinces. If the provinces at present lack the capacity to manage the new arrangements, this is not an argument for not proceeding along the perfectly desirable path of provincial autonomy, but cause for caution, thought and a systematic approach to the creation of the new structures and means to be put in place at the provincial level.

The HEC replaced its predecessor, the University Grants Commission, and because its first chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman was the blue-eyed boy of Musharraf, the HEC incrementally expanded its role in the growth of universities and funding for postgraduate studies and research. But it also began to invite criticism from academics for micro-managing the universities, arguably going beyond its mandate and in the process eroding the autonomy of the universities. The pell-mell rush towards mushrooming quantitative growth of new universities (including in the private sector) and increased postgraduate studies (PhDs, etc) and research took no account of how the academic requirements of these new institutions and programmes would be met in the absence of a pool of qualified academic manpower and whether the sudden spurt could come up to the desired standard. In other words, the HEC concentrated more on quantity than quality, to the detriment, arguably, of higher education standards in the country. As to the doomsday scenarios being painted of the collapse of all the postgraduate programmes of the HEC because of funding cut-offs, Raza Rabbani has pointed out that all ongoing programmes will continue, funding from federal sources (the Finance Ministry has just released the Rs 7.7 billion allegedly ‘held back’ from the HEC) and foreign donors would be available (confirmed by USAID), and the new Commission for Standard Higher Education would oversee standards and act as a coordinating centre for the functions devolved to the provincial level.

While the caution to proceed step by step down the devolution path to ensure as little disruption as possible is well taken, the devolution thrust of the 18th Amendment must be seen as a historic turn for the country. Those predicting the death of ‘national unity’ because of the perceived threat from the provinces ‘going their own way’ in curriculum, etc, seems premature and exaggerated. In any case, this bemoaned ‘national unity’ has been a false, imposed one in our short history, one that attempted to steamroller over the historically evolved ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities in a multi-national state. No, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, national integrity will not be “crushed” by devolution; what has been crushed so far has been precisely the identities highlighted above. National integration from above, in the name of a spurious national oneness has not worked. Arguably, it is time to allow the evolution of a real national integrity through the voluntary efforts of the federating units, an effort helped by the recognition of their ancient identities that predate the emergence of Pakistan. Does that mean each unit will become a ‘universe unto itself’? Not if the experience of democratic federations (and their opposite) is taken into account. A Pakistan of federating units confident in their (finally) established identities that binds the peoples of the disparate provinces through free and voluntary association, shared history, culture and interests will be a far more stable state than anything we have so far seen in the last 64 years. *


‘Hajj’ and ‘freebie’, when juxtaposed, produce a grotesque image of a sacred religious duty being downgraded to the status of a cheap commercial product or service. It is questionable what spiritual purpose such a pilgrimage, which has been financed by misuse of public office or dubious favours being granted to its beneficiaries, fulfils. Although public officials and private individuals have been going on Hajj freebies for many years now through abuse of pubic office, the Supreme Court (SC), thanks to the media’s intensive coverage, has taken notice of this ‘sacred’ scam for the first time. It has surfaced that, on the directives of the interior ministry, the religious affairs ministry had sent some 248 individuals in 2009 and 2010 on ‘free’ Hajj, whose expenses had been paid by the religious affairs ministry and two private individuals. During the latest hearing of the case, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) informed the SC that Rs 35 million are yet to be recovered from those who had performed Hajj without paying a penny for it. The most embarrassing part of this scam was that some leading journalists and their families also participated in this Hajj.

The culture of misuse of official perks and privileges and the creation of perks and privileges where the rules do not even allow is the real issue behind this scam. The Hajj freebies are just the tip of an iceberg. The free Hajj trips are in line with the culture of ostentation of religion promoted by Ziaul Haq. Public officials go on ‘free’ Hajj simply to wear the medal of being ‘hajjis’ and lately it has been used as a bribe for individuals who could favour the government in some way. What is most unfortunate is that some of the beneficiaries do not even doubt the validity of this exercise. Now that this has been exposed, it is imperative to bring the public officials as well as free Hajj beneficiaries to book according to the law. *

Source : http://dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2011\04\10\story_10-4-2011_pg3_1

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