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June 11, 2018

Higher education and party manifestos


June 11, 2018

Education has overall been a neglected area in our political parties’ priorities for general elections. A lot of lip service is paid and only little concrete measures are taken that can be implemented and produce positive results.

The Working Group on Higher Education Reforms and the Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences have developed a set of recommendations for political parties to include in their election manifestos. Some of these suggestions need special mention and should be considered seriously if these parties want to move beyond hollow promises.

Since the passing of the 18th Amendment, education at all levels has been devolved to the provinces. But there is a need to implement the amendment in letter and spirit. Unfortunately, the previous government of the PML-N – mainly coming from Punjab – showed minimal interest in implementing the amendment. In fact, it dilly-dallied in any worthwhile progress on this front. The former federal minister for education, Maulana Balighur Rahman, never showed any serious interest in higher education. The appointment of the previous chairman of the federal HEC was not transparent and smacked of favouritism.

The corruption cases, which surfaced at the National Institute of Science and Technical Education (NISTE) in Islamabad, were also another point of concern. NISTE is a federal entity but it is hardly federal in composition. Out of the institute’s hundreds of employees, most come from just one province, and Sindh and Balochistan’s representation is almost negligible. Moreover, frequent changes at the top have rendered the institution a white elephant. During the past five years, it was mostly bureaucrats who were appointed to lead NISTE. That resulted in massive corruption allegations, pointed out in the institute’s official audit reports.

Political parties should commit themselves to at least two things. Establishing and strengthening the provincial higher education commissions, and giving adequate representation to all provinces in all federal education councils, commissions, institutions and authorities. Up until now, only Punjab and Sindh have established their own HECs, whereas Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have not been able to do so. Balochistan mainly lacked the capacity to establish one and needed help from the federal HEC, which was more interested in consolidating its own power rather than helping other provinces in this matter.

Not only this, under the previous government, the federal HEC neither liked nor wanted to coordinate with and help the provincial HECs. The relationship between the federal and the two provincial HECs in Punjab and Sindh was always strained, so much so that they did not invite each other at important events, and if ever an invitation was extended, the concerned officials usually did not attend the event. This resulted in a constant tug-of-war and marred the efforts of the provincial HECs to become well-functioning bodies. The previous KP government was least interested in establishing their provincial HEC.

The next important point to be included in party manifestos is regular meetings of the Council of Common Interests (CCI), with special focus on matters of higher education. The degree-attestation drama staged by the federal HEC is a mockery of higher education. The federal HEC should have nothing to do with any such attestation or verification. In any case, the HEC simply serves as a post office in the entire process and earns a lot of money at the cost of students. If somebody received a degree decades ago, the federal HEC has no mechanism to attest and verify the degree. It has to rely on the record of the concerned university.

The CCI should also decide about transferring all funds for higher education to the provinces, because after the 18th amendment it is their prerogative and right to be given funds by the federation. The previous government kept funding the federal HEC, while the provincial HECs starved. Moreover, the required allocation of funds for education is at least four percent of GDP, without which there can be no major change in education statistics.

One argument against the four percent allocation is that when even the current allocation is not spent and utilised properly, why is there a need to increase it to four percent. This argument is flawed on two accounts. First, a certain lapse of amount will always be there unless a mechanism is developed to track the budget spending quarterly. Right now most of the budget remains unspent due to the delayed release of payments. Thus, in the last quarter of the fiscal year there is a flurry of spending but large sums of the allocation still lapse.

Secondly, since the salary budget is always almost spent in entirety, it is only the development budget that lapses. Now, NAB’s increased activities and witch-hunts have also adversely affected the spending. Education managers feel demotivated to spend on development because they feel that their integrity can be questioned anytime and they can be humiliated even before anything is proved. This needs to stop. Unless there is solid proof nobody should be threatened or intimidated.

Academic freedom is another area that needs commitment from all political parties. Currently, the academic atmosphere at higher education institutes is highly suffocating and freedom of expression has been severely curtailed. Education at all levels is about curiosity, to know about things and share ideas. Our senseless insecurity has cultivated a paranoia that does not allow free expression at universities. This needs to stop. No agency or authority should have the right to force academic institutions to cancel seminars and conferences in the name of national interest.

In addition to freedom of expression, the freedom to manage an institution is also the prerogative of the university itself. At universities, there have to be functioning bodies such as councils, senates, syndicates and student unions. The representatives of these bodies should be elected in a free and fair atmosphere without any interference of irrelevant outsiders. If any outsiders have to be nominated or involved they should not be bureaucrats of dubious characters, rather should also be well-reputed academicians. The outsiders who are imposed on councils, senates, and syndicates are mostly political favourites and do more harm to the institution than good.

Furthermore, cultural activities at educational institutions should be encouraged rather than banned in the name of religion. The violence that we have seen in the past 40 years or so is the direct result of the failure of our policies on culture. Pakistan used to be a region of peace and tolerance, but has now been turned into a bastion of hatred and intolerance. This is mainly because the culture of dance, drama and music was crushed under the yoke of false traditions and the so-called purity of religion. We need to realise that if the young generation is deprived of healthy cultural activities, violence is bound to erupt.

Lastly, arts, humanities and social sciences are subjects that make us human beings. A disproportionate stress on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is likely to produce more robots rather than good human beings. A good combination of both ie arts and sciences is likely to produce better human beings and good professionals.

The writer holds a PhD in education management from the University of Birmingham. His collection of essays, Politics, Pictures, Personalities, has been published in 2018.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]