Higher Education - Tanvir Ahmad Khan - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In the fairly intense debate going on about the future of the Higher Education Commission one has to hold on to two significant strands: one, education is a provincial subject and the process of devolution cannot be scuttled; two, there are aspects of higher education and research that the federal government should remain engaged with under the rubric “standards in institutions of higher learning”. A third consideration is that if the state is disassembling such a large institution as the HEC which kept growing with little value added for its purported objectives, the provincial and federal governments should have plans, resources and resolve to set in place better institutions.

Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination and Chairman, Implementation Commission on the 18th Amendment Mian Raza Rabbani’s disclosure that Islamabad is ‘evolving’ a new commission raises the hope that the genuine fears of the opponents of the HEC ‘dissolution’ can be redressed. But one has to withhold applause till a number of questions have been answered. Is there a judicious assessment of the successes and failures of the existing HEC? If so, what metrics of quantity and quality were applied and by whom? How wide and deep is the consultation in evolving the new commission? How many of the eminent scholars who have followed educational reforms since the Ayub era have been consulted?

Then there are individuals who have looked at higher education not only from the viewpoint of excellence, particularly in science and technology, but also its role in fostering a more enlightened society. Have they been brought into the loop? Does the government plan to hold nation-wide seminars and symposia to ensure a comprehensive review of higher education?

In the post-Benazir Bhutto era, the PPP is getting increasingly dominated by elements that distrust knowledge, intellectuals, free research and an inquisitive and questioning culture. Can Rabbani assure us that his project would not become another administrative fiat, another sleight of the hand by an incompetent government?

Universities represent the apex of a country’s spiritual, cultural and intellectual life. They are expected to play a crucial role as the custodians and interpreters of the moral, ethical and ideological values of a people. They are also the main instrument of a planned and orderly change that enables communities to keep pace with time. Modern societies are heavily dependent, in the material domain, on excellence and achievement in higher education, particularly in science and technology. It is, therefore, natural that its practical functions receive special emphasis.

But higher education is equally vital for objectives and purposes which are not directly related to economic progress but which are good in themselves, and lead to the enrichment of life, be it individual or collective.

Our universities are hampered by a poor base of universal literacy and an indifferently developed system of secondary education. The Zardari regime has shown no interest in revolutionary approaches to mass literacy or secondary education or for that matter to improving facilities for vocations, trades and skills. The HEC promised a revolution at the university level but got lured away by the siren call of numbers leaving quality of faculty and students to deteriorate further.

Universities not only impart the existing knowledge, but also, create it. Education and research are inseparable, and fundamental to the idea of a university. Sadly, a large number of university graduates fail to acquire even an acceptable level of knowledge; research output remains abysmal.

Since no drastic decline in internal and external funding is apprehended at this moment, the federal government should come out with a white paper on its plans for devolution in the field of education and the improved commission that Rabbani has talked about.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email : katanvir@ yahoo.com

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=41420&Cat=9

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