Saturday May 28, 2022

Higher education in chaos

December 07, 2016

The higher education sector is facing a huge chaotic situation for the last four years since there are now three higher education commissions that are trying to control the same universities simultaneously. These are the Sindh and Punjab HECs, which are duplicating the functions of the previously established federal HECs.

The provincial HECs were set up on the instigation of some 200 parliamentarians with forged degrees after the federal HEC refused to verify the fake documents. We have become a laughing stock in the world because of the delay in resolving this matter, which has been pending before the Sindh High Court for almost four years.

The KP and Balochistan governments fortunately decided to respect the Supreme Court decision that the HEC was a federal subject and did not set up the provincial HECs. However since about 80 percent of our universities are located in Sindh and Punjab, the bulk of the higher education sector remains in a state of perpetual crisis. The universities of Sindh keep receiving notifications both from the federal and provincial HECs, and the vice chancellors are confused about who to follow and who not to follow.

It is a common misperception that under the 18th Amendment, the entire education sector was devolved to the provinces. Instead, the opposite is true. Indeed in the formulation process of the 18th Amendment, a deliberate decision was taken by the Constitutional Reforms Committee that while primary and education issues could be dealt with by the provinces, the issues relating to higher education involved national integration, cohesion and national development so that they need to be necessarily dealt with at the federal level. It is for these very reasons that higher education and research have always been dealt with as federal subjects in India, Korea, Turkey, China, the UK and other countries around the world. If four provincial HECs were to operate simultaneously in Pakistan, it will create huge problems at an international level regarding the equivalence and recognition of degrees of Pakistani students. It will also create chaos at the national level due to differing standards and grades.

To put matters in perspective, the Higher Education Commission was set up in 2002 through a federal ordinance under which it became the sole body responsible for all universities, including the provincial universities, and degree awarding colleges. The role of the provincial governments was confined to schools and non-degree awarding colleges. An attempt was made by the PPP government to devolve the higher education sector to the provinces in 2010, but this was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of April 12, 2011 on a petition filed by me – along with Marvi Memon and Senator Azam Swati.

However in open defiance of the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Sindh Assembly went ahead and passed a law on February 21, 2013 forming the provincial higher education commission to control the provincial universities. This law was an almost exact duplication of the law in the ordinance of the federal HEC. This was clearly illegal and a contempt of the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in which the attempted devolution of the HEC to the provinces by the PPP government had already been declared illegal.

Indeed the Supreme Court of Pakistan in its decision of 2011 had decided that under the 18th Amendment to the constitution (through the 4th Schedule ,Article 70(4) Federal Legislative Lists Part-I and Part-II) the HEC was fully protected as a federal subject as specified in the Federal Legislative Lists. These include research, professional or technical training, planning and coordination of scientific and technological research, legal, medical and other professions, and standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions as well as inter-provincial matters and co-ordination. The Supreme Court decision made it very clear that these provisions of the constitution are directly applicable to the HEC and they cannot be tampered with by formulating a new provincial law that attempts to supersede a previously existing federal law.

It is notable that the provinces already have a strong voice in the functioning of the federal HEC, since they are represented on the HEC governing body by a provincial secretary or his nominee. The other experts that are nominated by the prime minister are also carefully selected to reflect a provincial balance. This ensures that the provinces can actively participate in the development and implementation of all plans and policies relating to the promotion of the higher education sector in Pakistan.

There is now some hope. On December 1, 2016 the Lahore High Court (LHC) passed a historic judgement declaring actions taken by the Punjab Higher Education Department illegal and referring to the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. That decision clearly stated that under the 18th Amendment higher education had not been devolved to the provinces but remained a Federal subject, under the complete jurisdiction of the Higher Education Commission, Islamabad.

The Lahore High Court ruled that the decisions taken by the Punjab Higher Education Department in respect of appointment of Vice Chancellors of four universities in Punjab were illegal as only the Federal HEC was authorized to take all actions in connection with universities under the Constitution. As a result, the acting vice chancellors (VCs) of four public sector universities of Punjab were removed. The court also declared part of Section 14 of Punjab University Act 1973 illegal, which empowered the Punjab government to make appointment of the vice chancellors.

A similar petition filed by Marvi Memon and I has been pending in the Sindh High Court since February 2013 against the formation of the Sindh HEC by the Sindh Provincial Assembly. There has been no decision so far creating a lot of confusion in the province of Sindh. Repeated applications for urgent hearing have had little effect. It is a pity that a case of such national importance remains pending without decision. The actions being taken by the Sindh HEC such as forming a Search Committee for the appointment of Sindh Vice Chancellors and then making appointments of these VCs appear to be illegal in the light of the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the recent decision of the Lahore High Court. 

It is high time a decision was taken on the petition pending before the Sindh High Court since February 2013, before more damage is done to the higher education sector in the province of Sindh.

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