Save higher education - Dr Qaisar Rashid - Friday, April 08, 2011

It must be either lunacy or revenge. Otherwise no plausible justification can be found for the dissolution or devolution of the Higher Education Commission, with the 18th Constitutional Amendment used as the pretext. It is lunacy because the HEC had been performing brilliantly in the field of higher education and research since its inception in 2002. It appears to be revenge because the HEC had just rejected fake degrees, thereby exposing the true character of more than one hundred Pakistani legislators whose educational qualifications are in doubt.

The HEC was not an intruder into the system of education in Pakistan. It came into being because of the failure of its predecessor, the University Grants Commission, to serve higher education and research in Pakistan. The report published by the World Bank and UNESCO in 2000 lamenting the backwardness of developing countries such as Pakistan had spurred then-education minister Zubaida Jalal into action to constitute a task force to advance higher education and research in Pakistan. The HEC was constituted at the recommendation of the task force.

As a unit, the HEC performed three functions: assurance of quality in higher education and research; provision of funds for these; and accreditation of universities, both public and private, and the degrees issued by them. These functions are so interdependent that to detach any one of them from the others will undo the whole scheme, at the same time nullifying the very rationale for the existence of the HEC. The HEC’s autonomy was vital to each of these three factors. So it is incomprehensible why the HEC’s performance in the promotion of education in the field of science and technology should not have been a reason for its permanence.

While provincial autonomy is essential, it was vital for the survival of the HEC to continue operating on the federal level. The past performance of the provinces is dismal even in the provision of simple education. And this is despite the fact that basic and secondary education require lower investment and a simpler mechanisms. The existence of “ghost schools” and the high degree of teacher absenteeism is a well-known fact. The question is: given their record in education, are the provinces even capable of meeting the needs of higher education and research? Further, who will be held responsible for the failure if the experiment of the HEC’s transfer to the provinces fails?

There are two other problems attached to devolution of higher education and research to the provinces.

The first is the issues of copyright and patenting. For instance, if a better variety of wheat is developed in one province, it is that province which will have the copyright to the seed, because of the expenditure it incurred in the development of that variety, including payment to experts in the research involved. Similarly, a method of treatment developed in one province will be patented in that province and patients from other provinces would have lower priority. The hitches these and similar problems create could fuel provincialism and undermine federalism.

The second is the issue of different levels of development in the provinces. Just as development levels in the provinces is unequal, so is expertise available in each. Against that background, for instance, one kind of syllabus and one level of financial and intellectual investment will produce a particular level of expertise which will be superior or inferior to that available in another province. This will produce differentials in the development of the provinces. Once that happens, provincialism will receive a boost and will thrive at the cost of federalism.

Currently, with reference to its structure and one portion of its functions, the HEC Ordinance, 2002, is enshrined in Article 270-AA (2) (a) of the Constitution. So it will take an act of parliament or a presidential ordinance for the abolition of the HEC. The HEC’s exposure of fake degrees does not target the politicians, as such, because exposure of malpractices in the field of higher education is a duty of the HEC. If the University Grants Commission were still in existence, fake degree would not even have been issue.

Parts I and II of the Federal Legislative List includes the second portion of the HEC’s functions. With dissolution of the Concurrent Legislative List, the third portion of its functions has gone to the provinces, although among the three halves of functions, several functions are common. Hence, if the Concurrent Legislative List takes constitutional entries No 38 (curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education) and No 39 (Islamic education) to the provinces, the rest of the functions are still left behind.

Even in the light of the 18th Amendment, it is a moot point whether or not the HEC is a regulatory authority established under a federal law in accordance with entry No 6 in Part II of the Federal Legislative List. The HEC comes under the Council of Common Interests under Article 154 (1), which reads: “The Council shall formulate and regulate policies in relation to matters in Part II of the Federal Legislative List and shall exercise supervision and control over related institutions.”

The question is whether or not the HEC is an institution “related” to the CCI because the CCI is related to resolutions disputes like distribution of water among the provinces. Apparently, the HEC is not related to the CCI because the division of the provincial funds (including those for education) will take place under NFC awards. The CCI seems more related to that distribution mechanism than to the HEC.

The 18th Amendment is silent on whether both the HEC and the CCI assert relevance to certain entries given in part II of the Federal Legislative List (like entry No 7 focusing on “...planning and coordination of scientific and technological research” and entry 12 focusing on standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions), which one should prevail over the other?

Under the 18th Amendment, Article 270-AA allows the legislature to alter or amend the charter of the HEC through either an act of parliament or a presidential ordinance to keep the HEC federal. The point is not whether this can be done or not, but whether there is a will to do it.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:

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