The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was a victory for democracy. It allows devolution of basic services, including education, to the provinces but retains key educational facilities in the federal list, including higher education standards, technical training, scientific research, and progress monitoring of Pakistani students abroad. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) currently performs all these functions as an autonomous body that reports directly to the prime minister. Established in 2002, HEC has accomplished more for education in Pakistan in these eight years than any other state institution in the previous 55.
By Javaid R. Laghari | From the April 18 & 25‚ 2011‚ issue
Despite this progress, the HEC is under threat. On March 29, Sen. Raza Rabbani, chairman of the commission implementing the 18th Amendment, announced that the federal cabinet had approved dissolution of the HEC and would devolve its primary functions to the provinces. Not only is this unconstitutional, it also has the potential to severely damage research and higher education activities across the country.
The record speaks for itself. HEC increased the number of universities in Pakistan from 98 to 132, and enrolment from 135,000 in 2003 to 803,507 in 2008. Since HEC’s founding, 3,509 Ph.D.s have been produced, 200 more than the 3,309 in the 55 years prior. Currently, HEC is funding 7,500 scholars for Ph.D.s at both local and foreign universities. This is expected to triple the Ph.D. faculty in Pakistan. In addition, all university students in Pakistan have been provided with access to a digital library—which is being expanded to include colleges—enabling them to conduct comprehensive research with access to the latest publications.
HEC has focused on research and development from its onset. Disciplines important to Pakistan’s strategic growth—biotechnology and genetics, nanotechnologies, lasers, energy, agriculture and water resources—have been given special attention. Four of the country’s leading public sector universities are developing technology parks with HEC funding. This dedication to developing economies through education has started to pay off. Science Watch has ranked Pakistan among its rising stars several times, most recently in the field of microbiology in January 2011. QS World Universities Rankings 2010-2011 placed four Pakistani varsities in the top 600 universities of the world. Prior to HEC’s formation, no Pakistani institution had made the list.
All this growth will stagnate if the HEC is devolved and fragmented as recommended by the federal cabinet. Public sector universities would be placed under the control of provincial governments, which lack quality assurance and research experience. Degree verification and equivalence would fall under the cabinet division’s purview, raising doubts about the degrees issued in Pakistan in light of the fake degrees obtained by parliamentarians. Quality and research will both suffer.
The impending crisis has not gone unnoticed. The academic community is crying foul, students are protesting, and the negative impact of devolution on Pakistan’s education sector has become the cause célèbre for the media. Stakeholders have urged the judiciary to take notice, with suo moto petitions moved in the provincial high courts. Political parties have also joined in, with the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement denouncing the move, terming it unconstitutional.
This attention has had its drawbacks. Conspiracy theories abound on why the HEC is being dissolved, ranging from retribution for its role in determining that 55 parliamentarians had fake degrees to the provinces wanting to receive additional federal funding (though there may be none) to run the universities that fall in their charge.
Pakistan is suffering from a major economic downturn following the devastating floods last year, and cannot afford to lose its greatest weapon in the fight against poverty, unemployment, social injustice, and terror: education. Last year, the government slashed the HEC’s budget by 50 percent. This year it is threatening to abolish the commission through unconstitutional justifications. It should focus on reinforcing and encouraging institutions that perform well instead of pulling the rug from under them. With 82 million people below the age of 18, and another 86 million expected to be born over the next 20 years, Pakistan cannot afford to ignore the education of its future generations.
Laghari is chairman of the Higher Education Commission.