By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Pakistan Today, April 17, 2011
The 18th Amendment that promised transfer of certain domains of governance, including education, to the provinces triggered a furious debate about the existence of HEC. The amendment, which is an outcome of long deliberations between the major political parties of Pakistan, is considered to be a landmark towards the popular demand of provincial autonomy. The controversial part of it, however, is the devolution of Higher Education Commission. According to the notification, some important functions of HEC will now be carried out under a new commission, Commission for Standardisation for Higher Education, under the cabinet division.
There are two schools of thought on the devolution of the HEC. One school of thought believes that the HEC must continue in its present form as it has a number of achievements to its credit and its devolution may lead to serious consequences. The other school of thought is of the view that the HEC needs to be devolved and some of its essential functions can be carried out by a newly proposed commission. Let us look at the arguments put forward by both the perspectives to understand the nature of the debate. It was in 2002 that the HEC replaced the UGC (University Grants Commission) that was considered to be a dormant organization. The major challenges for the newly announced HEC included increase in enrollment in the universities, improvement in the quality of higher education by creating a culture of research, and ensuring academic standardisation process across the universities.
The HEC was lucky in four distinct ways: a) It was given an autonomous status contrary to the UGC which was tagged with the Ministry of Education; b) HEC got the amount of funds unmatched in the educational history of Pakistan; c) Dr Atta ur Rehman’s dynamic leadership was the best thing that happened to the HEC; d) All out support by Pervez Musharraf, the then powerful president. These factors helped the HEC deliver phenomenally during the last eight years.
Some of the HEC’s achievements included: a) Rs. 97 Billion for the development of the universities, b) 7500 HEC funded scholars pursuing their PhDs in local and foreign universities. c) access to 75% of the world’s literature through the Digital Library d) more PhDs in the last 8 years (3280) than in the first 55 years (3000) e) nearly 5,000 scholars facilitated to present their research work in leading conferences of the world and f) research output grown six-folds since 2002 (from 815 in 2002 to 5068 in 2010.
On the basis of the record of the HEC, a large portion of civil society and political parties are of the opinion that the HEC should exist in its present form for the sake of continuity. The pro-HEC group feared that in the absence of the HEC, provincialism may increase, standards will go down, funds for scholarship and for universities will cease and the degrees of Pakistani universities may not be given recognition.
On the other hand, the group that is pro-devolution holds that according to the spirit of 18th Amendment, devolution of functions to the provinces must be done. Since primary and college education are already with the provincial governments, the direct implication of the 18th Amendment should be for Higher Education. If it still remains with the Centre, implementation of the 18th Amendment is questionable. Senator Rabbani has clarified that funds for scholarships and development of universities will not stop. The quality and standards in higher education will be ensured by the newly proposed commission, Commission for Standardisation for Higher Education, which will work in the centre. Thus, there should not be any fear of decline in standards or non-recognition of degrees in the foreign universities. This group believes that the HEC in its present form is interfering too much in the academic freedom of universities and its devolution would give the required creative space to universities.
Both schools of thought have some convincing arguments and should be heard with respect. In the final analysis, however, three basic questions need to be addressed. First, is it legally viable to devolve the HEC, keeping in view that it has never been a part of the ministry of education and is an autonomous body. Second, is it possible for the proposed commission, working under the cabinet division, to resist the state pressure pertaining to the issues of merit as HEC defied such pressures in the recent past? Third, Are our provinces willing and prepared to take up the extra responsibilities of higher education as, with the exception of KPK, no other province has shown any excitement about the devolution plan. If Senator Rabbani is serious about the devolution, he needs to do the following: remove the lacuna in notification by coming up with a new law in order to include the HEC; make sure that the autonomous nature of the proposed commission remains intact and devise a comprehensive and effective mechanism for the implementation of the devolution plan with the stakeholders on board.
In the existing scenario, where the provinces lack political will, capacity, human resources, and action roadmap, the instant devolution of the HEC may prove counterproductive which would be serious setback to the efforts of provincial autonomy.
The writer is Professor & Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org