By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 21 Jun, 2010
A NUMBER of lawmakers in Pakistan are suspected of possessing fake degrees. The shocking aspect of this is that custodians of the law may have hoodwinked the system and made their way into esteemed lawmaking institutions. The holders of fake degrees belong to different political parties suggesting the deep entrenchment of the culture of unethical practices in our socio-political fabric.
Such unethical practices, however, were motivated by the political interests of dictators. The academic subversion started when Gen Ziaul Haq announced that the madressah asnad would be equated with the degrees of formal educational institutions — although the curricula of madressahs and formal educational institutions were poles apart. This politically motivated move was to please the religious factions that always sided with army-led governments. During the reign of Gen Musharraf, who pretended to champion ‘enlightened moderation’, it was decided that the old guard would be sidelined and a new breed of politicians accepting his agenda patronised. A new order was passed making graduation (BA) mandatory for lawmakers. At the same time Musharraf intended to marginalise the PPP and the PML-N, for which it was important that the MMA be facilitated.
The problem, however, was that Zia’s order regarding the equivalence of the madressah asnad was confined to madressah students. Musharraf’s government extended the relevance of that order to contesting elections. This allowed many MMA candidates to contest the 2002 elections and become part of the assemblies. For the first time, the religious parties formed a government at the provincial level.
The degrees of around 81 members of the MMA (29 MNAs and 52 MPAs) were challenged in the courts. The Musharraf government used this to blackmail the MMA into supporting its policies, including the notorious 17th Amendment. One of the main reasons the MMA played the role of friendly opposition was the sword of disqualification dangling over the heads of its members. Even with cases ongoing in courts, MMA members with controversial degrees managed to complete their terms. This was mainly because of the marriage of convenience between the MMA and the Musharraf government.
The 2008 elections gave potential candidates sufficient time to arrange for degrees. Non-graduate candidates explored different options and some managed to get fake degrees. The acquisition of fake degrees is not much of a problem, even in developed countries. In Pakistan, fake degrees can be obtained through multiple means. Gangs involved in this business have access to special paper on which degrees are printed, and logos, stamps and other sophisticated techniques such as watermark printing. One can buy a fake degree in any discipline.
Another major source of such degrees includes online universities that only exist on paper. They charge you a certain amount and offer you degrees including a PhD. Besides these, we have some universities in the private sector which managed to get a charter but demonstrate little rigour in their academic policies and processes, including admission, attendance and assessment. Their main objective is to mint money.
One of the contributions of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was to challenge the malpractices of such universities. In return tremendous pressure was mounted on the HEC, which suggests the powerful political backing enjoyed by these universities.
The ultimate result was that a number of candidates managed to acquire fake degrees, contested the elections and became part of prestigious lawmaking bodies. Cases were filed to challenge the degrees of a number of candidates of different political parties. The Supreme Court has given its verdict and five to six members have been asked to resign on charges of possessing fake degrees. Re-elections have been held involving heavy funds.
Such episodes raise legitimate questions, one being that of responsibility. Are the individuals responsible for having cheated? Or should the party leadership be blamed for issuing election tickets to holders of fake degrees? Or is it the election commission that is responsible, since it scrutinised the applications and let fake degree holders contest the elections, despite the graduation condition? In fact, the individuals, their party leadership and the election commission are all equally responsible.
In all civilised societies, cheating and unethical practices are not only disliked strict penalties are also imposed on dishonest persons. Here hardly any defaulter receives punishment. The irony is that in some cases they are rewarded by their parties by being awarded fresh tickets for the by-elections. In one case the prime minister himself went to the election meeting of a candidate who was found guilty of possessing a fake degree.
According to the latest information, the degrees of many lawmakers have been received by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for verification. The whole process should be completed in a couple of weeks. It is feared that some more members could be de-seated and if the numbers rise, there could be justification for fresh elections which would jolt our democratic system.
In an interesting parallel move, the HEC has decided to verify the degrees of faculty members of universities and higher education institutions as well. Identifying the holders of fake degrees will be a welcome move. There should be zero tolerance in this regard in order to uphold the principles of honesty, truthfulness and integrity.
The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.