Tuesday October 04, 2022

Well done, HEC

June 22, 2016

There was joyful news for Pakistan recently. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) won the ‘3G – Global Good Governance – Excellence in Higher Education Award 2016’ in recognition of its outstanding services and good governance systems for development of higher education sector in Pakistan. The HEC thus became the only government organisation to be recognised this way for excellence by external international experts..

The award was announced by the Global Donors Forum (GDF) and was presented during a special ceremony held recently in Istanbul, Turkey. According to a spokesperson of the HEC, the commission has been “strenuously struggling to promote higher education in the country since its inception in 2002 by ensuring equitable access, faculty development, excellence in academics and research, technological readiness, quality assurance, innovation and societal development.”

The Global Good Governance Awards (‘3G Awards’) are based on a proprietary ‘3G Methodology’ developed by Cambridge IF Analytica. The winner is selected by a global poll based on five pillars which, according to the information available on the website, are: “(a) Transparency; (b) Social Responsibility; (c) Sustainability; (d) Impact; and (e) Innovation.

“In order to maintain the highest standards of integrity, nominations are subject to multiple levels of independent review by a Selection Committee consisting of eminent personalities drawn from Government, Industry and the Academia.”

In a country in which most government institutions are rampant with corruption, and where cronyism and nepotism is the order of the day, the news that the HEC had defied these trends came like a breath of fresh air. The massive programmes launched by the HEC in the last 15 years resulted in five Pakistani universities being ranked in the top 300, 400 and 500 of the world by the Times Higher education rankings in 2008. The fact that they slipped badly later tells a sorry tale of the dismal performance and anti-education stance of the previous government.

One needs to dig a little deeper to find out why the HEC has succeeded where others have failed. Back in 2002, my cabinet colleagues and I were involved in framing the legal framework under which the HEC would function. We decided at the time to make it significantly different from the manner in which most government organisations in Pakistan operate. First, under the ordinance approved in 2002, the chairman of the organization was required to be “a person of international eminence and proven ability who has made significant contribution to higher education as teacher, researcher or administrator”. This law was aimed to ensure intellectual and academic leadership within the organisation.

The law also laid down that the chairman would not have any financial powers. These would be vested in an 18-member boxboard, including ten scholars of international eminence. This meant that 12 out of the 18 persons on the commission were neutral external persons of international repute. Moreover, the law laid down that the chairman and members could not be removed from the commission arbitrarily by the prime minister (who is the Controlling Authority) unless charges of corruption or inefficiency had been proved or the chairman/members were permanently disabled.

This severely limited the powers of the government in interfering in the functioning of the HEC, or appointing their own blue-eyed boys as members of the commission. Moreover, the fact that the chairman did not have any financial powers helped keep at bay corrupt politicians who would otherwise have been attracted to the Rs70 billion annual budget that the organisation dispenses annually to universities.

A second aspect of the success of the HEC has been the consistency of policies over the last 14 years. The programmes that I started in 2002 and which were implemented during 2002-2008 were continued subsequently under the chairmanship of Begum Shehnaz Wazirali, Prof Javaid Laghari and now Prof Mukhtar Ahmed. This was very unusual as the tradition in Pakistan has been to strongly criticise what was done by predecessors and to start afresh, resulting in making little headway. In the case of all three chairpersons who followed me, there was nothing but praise for the foundations that had been built.

The period under Javaid Laghari was the most turbulent one as the government at the time made all efforts to destroy the HEC to the extent that notifications were issued shredding it into pieces in the form of provincial HECs. This was because of the HEC’s refusal to recognise forged degrees of 200 parliamentarians or even the forged degrees of the federal minister of education at that time.

Another factor that contributed to the success of the HEC was the regular international reviews of its performance carried out by international experts. The tremendous support from Dr Akram Sheikh during his tenure as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and the excellent work of Prof Sohail Naqvi as the executive director of the HEC deserves special mention as they laid down the foundations of the higher education programmes.

Yet another important step introduced by the HEC during my tenure as chairman was to have all its accounts additionally audited by international auditors. Government auditors are often corrupt, and they raise objections in the form of ‘audit paras’ which then vanish after money exchanges hands. The introduction of international auditing companies to audit HEC accounts prevented such malpractices from ever occurring.

Perhaps the most important factor that led to the HEC winning the global award was its emphasis on quality in all spheres of its activities. An independent detailed review carried out by USAID reflected this aspect in the following remarks:

“One of the most striking aspects of HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities. Expectations were set high from the outset. Quality goal targets were set as international standards and expectations. Faculty promotions, publications, PhD dissertations, research grants, and many of the HEC programs were subject to these standards including evaluation by external peer reviewers...In keeping with its focus on quality, the attitude of the leadership of the HEC was that ‘quality is much more important than quantity’.”

Well done, HEC! Keep up the great efforts as the only way forward to build a strong knowledge economy is through a high-quality education system.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: