Side-effect - Harris Khalique - Friday, April 08, 2011

The criticism faced by the parliamentary commission on the implementation of the 18th Amendment to the constitution has taken a new dimension in recent days. There is uproar from a set of planners, benefactors and beneficiaries of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), set up a few years ago during General Pervez Musharraf’s rule, on the devolution of its authority to provinces. A few opposition parties, like the PML-N who ridicule anything done under Musharraf, seem to have switched sides at least on this occasion.

The critics belong to two broad sets of people and perhaps need two different responses. The first belong to the interest and ideology that can only be served in keeping Pakistan as a unitary state. They would continue to belabour arguments in support of a strong central authority. You would find a lobby comprising serving and retired civil servants, military officers, big businessmen and affluent professionals, active in the capital city, bemoaning the incompetence of the provinces and how the newly gained autonomy by the federating units poses a grave challenge to the integrity of the state. They raised the issue of school curriculum first and now HEC to emphasise their point.

The second group comprises concerned citizens and educationists worried about keeping up with the standards of higher education across the country, fearful of an increase in political interference at the provincial level in decisions that may affect merit and transparency, and resource distribution between and within the provinces among different institutions.

Let us take the first set of people. Even after being proven wrong incessantly over decades, they continue to believe and profess that the very survival of Pakistan will be in danger if power is devolved to provinces. Not only that this assertion is in contradiction with the premise of the creation of Pakistan that speaks about federating units coming together to form a state, it also overlooks the failure of political pundits, civil and military bureaucracy and champions of Pakistan ideology (a term coined in late 1960s by the way) who found their interests served in imposing unity at the cost of recognising diversity in both cultures and development needs of different provinces and regions.

How has the unitary state that we lived in for decades and the corresponding central authority exercised by a federal bureaucracy and technocracy succeeded in serving the majority of the citizens of Pakistani state? They have not. The model has failed utterly. Therefore, such assertions have to be dismissed without further ado.

The second set of people, some educationists and concerned citizens, have to be reminded of the fact that HEC replaced the University Grants Commission (UGC) some years back. Besides some of the similarities in roles, the HEC also introduced new programmes and set new standards. But that was all made possible because of its resource richness ensured by the state. The money came from overseas as a result of our participation in the war on terror.

To think that HEC managers were somewhat divine visionaries and were exceptionally superior to those running the resource constrained UGC earlier will be a bit of a misconception. Nevertheless, the issues around competitive standards and resource allocations have to be addressed by provincial and federal governments. This can be done by creating a statutory coordination and quality assurance mechanism including all stakeholders. It is the right of the provinces to run their institutions and compete freely in the job market and in the intellectual arena. They understand no less the challenges posed by the present day and age.

The writer is an Islamabad-based poet, author and public policy advisor.

Email: harris.khalique@

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