Discussions have ranged from whether higher education should continue as is to whether it should function under an amended law, or whether it should be devolved. The Supreme Court has clearly judged that higher education and research is protected under the 18th Amendment and cannot be devolved. But this does not and should not rule out the participatory role of provinces in further strengthening higher education.
The provinces should consider establishing autonomous provincial councils modelled on the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which should focus first on improving quality at colleges, which is a provincial subject.
It is also important to have an inclusive role of the provinces in policymaking at the HEC. The concerns of the smaller and less-developed provinces need to be addressed on the equitable distribution of resources, and on the provision of enhanced services at provincial capitals.
Scholarships, foreign and local, are currently awarded purely on merit through a national examination based on a policy approved by the former government, and not on a provincial basis. Approval is being sought from the prime minister to approve of awarding them on the basis of provincial quota in the future.
Development grants to the universities were awarded on an equitable basis as per geographical needs. After the passage of the 18th Amendment, they are now being distributed as per the National Finance Commission award.
Similarly, recurring grants are presently given as per university enrolment, based on a university-approved formula, and not on the basis of provincial population. A consideration here could be that any addition to the recurring grant be distributed as per provincial population, subject to the consensus of the universities.
The HEC has already started work on enhancing and strengthening the role of its regional centres for the provision of its services (attestation and equivalence, training, scholarship processing and interviews, etc.). Most services will now also be available at the provincial capitals. This will facilitate capacity-building at the provincial level, and will go a long way in strengthening provincial harmony and federal-provincial relations in higher education.
Other debate has been academic in nature, and concerns have been raised that the HEC has focused on quantity rather than quality. A large number of quality programmes have been initiated and implemented in the last couple of years, and these results will become visible soon. Yet the criticism continues unabated.
One criticism has been in the context of the foreign faculty hiring programme. However, performance evaluation shows that 330 foreign faculty hired have been responsible for the award of 97 PhD and 405 MPhil degrees to date, in addition to publishing 1,165 journal papers.
A strict performance criterion is now in place for the renewal of all foreign faculty contracts. All approved PhD supervisors have been reviewed for the limit of supervision. MPhil and PhD programmes that do not have minimum relevant full-time faculty are being asked to close down. The backlog of plagiarism cases has been taken up aggressively and universities asked to take action, otherwise these degrees will not be recognised. Centres of Excellence and Area Study Centres have been evaluated, weaknesses identified and remedial measures implemented. Two private universities not fulfilling the minimum criteria have been stopped from offering new admissions.
To improve the quality of teaching, learning innovation and faculty development programmes are being rejuvenated. Four accreditation councils that were recently established have developed policies and criteria for the improvement and rating of programmes. Their responsibilities include recommending and introducing modern changes to the curriculum.
The councils need to ensure that all recommended changes trickle down to the programmes for implementation so that the quality of the curricula improves. Then, 84 Quality Enhancement Cells have been established at universities which are presently assessing 31 standards in 740 programmes and will report to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) at the HEC. The capacity of these quality cells are being developed and enhanced through the QAA-UK
A pilot run of Institutional Performance Evaluation of programmes is currently being conducted, which will be extended to all universities and the results published later this year. This exercise will lead to the first-ever evaluation of universities and the ranking of programmes across Pakistan. This will facilitate students and parents in choosing universities, as well as potential employers for placements.
An area of concern at certain universities is poor governance. Universities have been asked to appoint chairmen and deans who fulfil the criteria of a full professor, and to refrain from appointing retired individuals in administrative positions. Qualifications for appointment as lecturers are being enhanced to have a minimum requirement of MPhil.
On the appointment of vice-chancellors, a dialogue has been initiated with the chancellors to ensure that positions are advertised and a search committee of distinguished individuals quantitatively short-lists candidates and interviews them. The chancellor then appoints from the top three. The qualifications and independent nature of the search committee, and the academic qualification, maximum age, numbers of terms and performance review of serving VCs are among the ongoing deliberations.
Research that is inter-disciplinary, inter-provincial and global and relevant to socio-economic needs is being supported. Two successful international programmes are Inspire with UK universities and British Council funding, and the US S & T Cooperation with US universities. Offices of research, innovation and commercialisation, and incubators are being established in universities (subject to funding) that will bridge research to industry. Three centres in the priority and interdisciplinary areas of water resources, energy and food security are also under development with USAID funding.
Quality education must be made accessible to all. Pakistan should reform and set new standards if we aspire to become a developed nation.
The writer is the chairperson of the Higher Education Commission.