By Saleem H Ali
As an expatriate Pakistani academic, I have closely followed the work of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in recent years. All government bureaucracies need time to reach their full potential and that has been the case with the HEC as well. Yet, there is little doubt in my mind that the HEC was a net positive investment for Pakistan’s educational development. The news of the HEC’s ‘devolution’ under the 18th Amendment was quite disconcerting because this decision has been made with little forethought and has all the markings of dubious political motives.
When the current government took power, it had a clear vendetta against institutions created or nurtured under the Musharraf regime. While I am certainly not a fan of the pompous general, Pakistanis must give him credit for engaging in some positive steps for higher education. Under the leadership of world-renowned chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society Dr Attaur Rahman, the HEC raised the international stature of Pakistani universities and gave ample opportunities for scholarships for Pakistani students and faculty. Through transparency and effective management of resources by Executive Director Dr Sohail Naqvi, international donors lavished funds on the HEC which were put to very good use. The performance of the HEC, as observed by international scholars of education, has been overwhelmingly positive. Fred Hayward, who published a study in the peer-reviewed journal International Higher Education Quarterly in 2009, commended the organisation for increasing enrolments in higher education programs by 89 per cent in its initial seven years of operation.
The commission was profiled in numerous international competitions as a ‘best practice’ in the developing world and won several awards for institutional innovation. The United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development reported in one communiqué that “the progress made was breathtaking and has put Pakistan ahead of comparable countries in numerous aspects”. Also, note that during the tenure of the HEC, Hindustan Times also wrote an article which was titled “Pak Threat to Indian Science”, in which it was revealed that Dr C N R Rao, chairman of the Indian Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council, had also given a briefing to lawmakers, suggesting that India consider the HEC as an important example of excellence.
No doubt when large quantities of funds are involved, there are always some detractors about the competing uses of such funds. Some critics of the HEC contended that the money should be used for primary education instead. This is a rather specious argument. Of course, primary education is important, but for long-term development higher education is also necessary. There needs to be simultaneous investment in both. Indeed, the example of sub-Saharan Africa should provide a warning for those who argue for a focus only on primary education. Rates of primary educational enrolment are very high in many African countries but their development indicators are among the worst — this is partly due to abysmal higher education.
Some of the other criticism of the HEC came from languid faculty members who had comfortable jobs with little accountability. The HEC’s performance-oriented system was a threat to them and they started a campaign against the organisation. There were indeed some plausible critiques of particular management decisions offered by some notable academics such as Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr Asghar Qadir, but these could have been addressed within the current institutional framework.
Now let’s consider the 18th Amendment issue in this context. Higher education is a national priority issue because of its importance in development across the board. We cannot afford to have ‘devolution’ in this regard because higher education deserves to be a national ‘equaliser’. Consider the US Land Grant system for universities or higher education streamlining in any technologically advanced developing country, such as Brazil, and you will find some major federal oversight. Using the HEC as a sacrificial lamb to placate provincial sensibilities is sheer folly. There are many other places where provincial government need authority such as in the management of oil and gas revenues, and that could play a constructive role in development and conflict resolution. Let us hope the government will reconsider this move or that our ever-so-active Supreme Court might give this matter much celebrated suo motu consideration. Higher education must not fall prey to petty political bickering.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2011.