Educational secularism By Bina Shah - Wednesday 20th April 2011

ACADEMICS, educators, students and politicians have noisily protested the move by the government to dissolve the HEC in its current national form under the 18th Amendment, and shift its functions to the provincial level.
Only recently, much attention has been given to Pakistan’s ‘Education Emergency’, and you’ve got to wonder whether this latest earthquake is just going to make things worse.
The HEC was formerly known as the University Grants Commission, established by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973; President Musharraf changed its name in 2002 to the Higher Education Commission, and put Dr Atta-ur-Rehman in charge.
As the primary regulator of higher education in Pakistan, the HEC concerned itself with upgrading Pakistan’s universities into “centres of education, research, and development”. It took on a myriad of projects relating to faculty development, curriculum revision, infrastructure development, scholarships and research.
Its supporters claimed almost miraculous results within barely a few years: the number of PhD students jumped tremendously, budgets for education were expanded, salaries and working conditions at universities improved, and its programme of educational reform was touted as a Cinderella story by the Pakistani government.
However, the HEC was not without its critics, the most vocal of whom was Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy. He burst the HEC bubble by calling into question its amazing achievements: in a much-publicised letter to Nature magazine, he noted that billions of rupees had been wasted on educational projects that never fully came to fruition. Scientific equipment paid for by the HEC lay unused.
The HEC drive to increase publications by Pakistani academics in foreign journals by paying them for their articles led to a “plagiarism pandemic” in the country. Salary increases for university professors had created huge disparities between them and average Pakistani school teachers. Hoodbhoy’s point was that the huge cash infusion given to higher education through the HEC had resulted in a “failed experiment” where “naked greed” was “destroying the moral fibre of Pakistan’s academia”.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better when Dr Javaid Laghari, former vice-chancellor at Szabist, was made the head of the HEC in 2009. Under him, the HEC stopped trying to vie for awards and acclaim, and instead focused on achieving sensible, on-the-ground solutions to the question of higher education reform.
Research programmes were strengthened: a foreign scholarship programme provided 5,000 students in 28 countries with funds to study abroad, and these scholars were tracked for a year on their return, given a one-year research position at the university of their choice and a start-up research grant.
PERN, the high-speed data access network, provided Pakistani universities with access to the Internet, and a digital library with access to 45,000 e-books and 23,000 e-journals was established; every scholar knows the importance of easy access to information, and the HEC respected the needs of Pakistani scholars by implementing these and other useful, practical policies to the benefit of Pakistani academia.
Along with this important work, the HEC turned its attention to regularising higher education, taking on the difficult case of fake degrees and fake institutions, working to make sure that university degrees were issued from legitimate universities in Pakistan. Educational degrees obtained in the country had to be attested by the HEC, as a result of the fake degree scandal that erupted in Pakistan’s parliament in 2010.
What gave the HEC local and international credibility was its autonomous set-up: it reports directly to the Prime Minister, not any cabinet division. According to Dr Laghari, “Two thirds of its members are appointed by the prime minister from a panel of three names of eminent academics. These members are appointed for a four-year term and may not be removed, save on proven charges of corruption, inefficiency, permanent disability. This structure is what gives the HEC autonomy.”
Unfortunately, the HEC’s firm stance on the issue of fake degrees has contributed to the latest decision by the government to devolve the HEC to the provincial level. Under the 18th Amendment, the government may make any changes they like to the HEC and any other government body as necessary, but the HEC insists this is wrong and that the 18th Amendment actually protects its status as an autonomous body.
Leaving the legal squabbling aside, the refusal by the HEC to fold under the pressure of vested interests on the attestation of degrees has drawn ire from some quarters. As Dr Hoodbhoy so presciently wrote in his rejoinder to Nature magazine, “naked greed” is destroying Pakistani academia once again.
The machinations of the Pakistani government in the area of education are generally beyond anyone’s comprehension, but if the current plans go ahead, the implications are clear: the HEC will cease to exist, all research projects under its umbrella will stop, programmes linking research projects would halt, the foreign scholarship programme and the digital library programme would go awry.
World Bank and USAID loans and grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Pakistan’s education sector would have to be reworked or would stop altogether. Untold damage to the fragile advances in educational reform made by the HEC would result, and there’s no guarantee that the new commission for higher education under the cabinet division would ever be able to pick up the pieces of this shattered dream.
The merits and flaws of the HEC are being debated by academics all over the country, and we’ve got to hope that the debate will result in a compromise that sees some of the HEC’s functions given to the provinces, and others retained under federal government administration.
What is clear from this controversy, however, is that just as education and religion should not mix, nor should education and politics. We could call this concept ‘educational secularism’, to remind ourselves of how Pakistani academia must not be the victim of changing governments, nor held hostage to the whims and fancies of politicians and those who seek to curry their favour at the cost of making Pakistan an educated, and educating, country.
The writer holds an M. Ed from Harvard University.

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