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Islamabad

June 28, 2018

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Sargodha University, where degrees were sold for cheap

Islamabad : While some vice chancellors of public sector universities in Punjab have faced the ire of Supreme Court Chief Justice over appointment irregularities, a long pending case of alleged mismanagement and corruption by a former vice chancellor of University of Sargodha reveals the real crisis facing the state of higher education in the province is much deeper.

Dr. Akram Chaudhary, who served as vice chancellor of this university from 2007 to 2015, faces serious charges of academic, administrative and financial mismanagement and corruption in the on-going investigations being carried out by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). A Special Audit of his two tenures conducted by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), on the direction of National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Federal Education and Professional Training last September, confirms most of these charges.

A review of documents that triggered NAB’s formal probe and formed the basis of HEC’s audit findings, and background interviews with concerned officials, portray a disturbing picture of how the former vice chancellor managed to compromise equality education at this reputable institution, which was established as de’Montmorency College in 1929, converted into Government College in 1946 and granted university charter in 2002. Consequently, the national ranking of University of Sargodha declined from No.8 in 2007 to No.18 in 2015.

The over-100 page HEC audit report supported by over 800 pages of annexed documents, has noted “substantive evidence of malfeasance, irregularities, lack of compliance with codal requirements and financial mismanagement.” Last month, the HEC formally shared this report with the Chancellor/ Governor Punjab and Secretary, Higher Education Department, Punjab.

Among its most revealing findings is the scale of corruption involving affiliated colleges and private campuses, which have sold degrees for cheap to thousands of students over a span of several years.

“It is a scam equal to, if not more, to the Axact degree scandal of 2016, perhaps the difference is only of scope, as the students or graduates in this case are all local,” says a NAB official requesting anonymity.

Like other public sector universities established in 2002, the University of Sargodha has territorial jurisdiction in the entire province. Yet the Punjab University, which also covers the entire Punjab, could not affiliate as many colleges in the past well over a century of its existence as Sargodha University managed to do during less than a decade of Dr Chaurdhary’s tenure.

In 2007, Sargodha University had only 42 affiliated colleges. By 2015, the number of its affiliated colleges had grown to 614. The former VC invoked Section 13/3 more than 2,165 times to grant or extend college affiliations, mostly without formal approval from the statutory bodies. The record also indicates that 854 colleges, which were notified as duly affiliated colleges, had admitted students who appeared in exams conducted by the university. Many of these colleges were ghost colleges, existing only on paper. In most cases, they lacked the requisite faculties and facilities.

The alleged corrupt motives and practices underpinning such unusually large college affiliations at a relatively new provincial university are a particular focus of NAB investigations, which were formally launched in February by the probing agency’s Governing Body headed by NAB Chairman Justice Javed Iqbal.

“We are fully cooperating with officials at NAB’s provincial headquarter in Lahore, as we did during the process of HEC audit,” says Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, the current Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University, who in the last over a year of his tenure has brought down the number of affiliated colleges to almost half, just over 300. “More disaffiliations are on the way this year,” he adds.

An even more glaring legacy of the ex-VC’s era pertains to the university’s five private campuses in Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujnranwala and Mandi Bahauddin, which were established in 2012 under the Private-Public Partnership arrangement without fair competition and in total disregard to the prescribed HEC criteria. In the case of Lahore and Mandi Bahauddin campuses, even the necessary approval from the syndicate and relevant bodies was not obtained.

With the university having no control over financial, administrative and academic affairs of these private campuses, they freely admitted students who were lowest on merit, often in excess of the allocated seats by the hundreds, and awarded them inflated grades in the end with impunity.

That is why the HEC last year directed the university management to gain full control over admission, registration and examination matters of its private campuses as well as to ensure that they meet the required quality standards for academic and administrative staff and teaching and research facilities.

However, despite consistent efforts by the university management, the private campuses continue to defy the terms and conditions regarding admission, registration and examination listed in the Deed Agreement and the NOC granted by the HEC. For instance, in Fall 2017 admissions, as per HEC directive, the university syndicate allowed them only 50 admissions per programme; but most of these campuses, especially Lahore admitted students several times above this limit in much sought after disciplines.

“We have informed them several times that the university is ready to take semester exams, but they don’t respond at all,” says Dr Muhammad Bashir, the Controller of Examinations. “How can we ensure quality education when they are free to admit students and don't take our exams?” he asked.

For its part, the NAB is probing the extent of corruption, including kickbacks and commissions, involved in the establishment and management of private campuses during the ex-VC’s era, as well as the alleged fraud concerning the issuance of fake transcripts, NOCs and migration certificates by the self-appointed Controllers of Exam and Registrars of these campuses. NIU investigations reveal the Lahore and Gujranwala campuses have indeed issued such fake documents.

Last month, the university syndicate, while taking serious notice of the fact that private campuses were jeopardising quality education at the expense of the university, initiated a probe into non-compliance by the private campuses in admission, registration and examination matters, barring the Lahore campus from Fall 2018 admissions.

The private campuses have responded by refusing to pay registration dues to the university. In the past week, its treasury office did recover Rs20 million in registration fees from Faisalabad, Gujranawala and Mandi Bahauddin campuses. But they still owe the university in both principal amount and late fees a staggering amount of Rs700 million, including Rs660 million by Mandi Bahuddin alone.

“The Lahore campus owes the university much more, as they have been admitting lowest merit students several hundreds each year since 2012, over and above the allotted limit or what we admit per programme in the main campus,” says Dr Khalid Naseer, who heads the affiliations branch at the university.

The currently volatile case is that of 555 graduates from the years 2013-16, who have been agitating publicly for the past few weeks. But, despite several reminders, the Lahore campus has refused to provide the registration data to the university and over Rs7 million in registration fees to the university so that it can issue their transcripts. According to university record, the Lahore campus also owes to the University Rs130 million, out Rs300 million that private campuses owe to it in total in exam fees.

“We have clear instructions from the vice chancellor to ensure full compliance of the private campuses with syndicate decisions, provisions of the Deed Agreement and HEC’s NOC conditions,” says Dr Naseer.

The efforts to drastically curtail the number of affiliated colleges and bring private campuses into the legal loop have brought considerable trouble for the Vice Chancellor, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad from the stakeholders of status quo within and beyond the university.

Ijaz Bhatti, the head of English Department and the university’s focal person in the on-going NAB probe, alleges that a whole mafia has joined hands to prevent the incumbent vice chancellor and his team from pursuing progressive reforms to ensure quality education. The pressure tactics for the purpose include several litigations, media propaganda, and even false allegation of blasphemy.

Officials at both HEC and NAB are of the opinion that the university’s current woes are essentially hailing from the decade-long mismanagement and corruption of the previous era. Hence, when the university management completes its follow-up investigations as resolved by the syndicate on the basis of the HEC report and the NAB probe makes further progress, the situation will gradually become more conducive for gearing up the reform process.

Both probe processes are going to be time consuming, as the issues are not merely limited to private campuses and college affiliations. The former VC, in exercise of the powers vested in him under Section 13(3) of University of Sargodha Ordinance 2002, “made appointments, promotions, passed the annual budget and entered into agreements without placing them before the Syndicate for approval within the stipulated time limit.”

Several instances of administrative mismanagement have been documented by the HEC, which include “granting higher rates of deputation allowance, illegal offer of salary packages and other financial perks to senior administrative colleagues to get their connivance in other irregularities resulting in serious financial loss to the University.”

The audit reveals multiple cases of granting Personal Grade without approval of the statutory bodies, and appointment without advertisement of498 administrative staff and several hundred faculty on ad-hoc and contractual basis members, many of them retired, without budgetary allocation or needed justification. In one instance of over-hiring, three posts of Assistant Registrars were advertised, 13 were recruited.

“So far we have handed over to the NAB the entire record pertaining to these illegal appointments,” says Mr Bhatti, the focal person in NAB probe. “This week we shall hand over the required record pertaining to alleged corruption in development projects, including the medical and agricultural colleges, hospital complex and industrial unit,” he adds.

Interestingly, the ex-VC’s use of emergency powers under Section 13/4 (to hire staff up to Grade 20 for six months) and Section 13/3(to decide a matter ahead of Syndicate’s approval) of the University Act was so rampant that the Punjab government had to finally withdraw Section 13/4 and amend Section 13/3 in all of the provincial University Acts back in 2012.

The HEC audit report also pinpoints serious indiscipline in budget estimates of each financial year during both tenures of the former Vice Chancellor, where there is concealment of income and wrong presentation of budget to the Finance and Planning Committee and the Syndicate. The budget book of the university has a pattern of wide deviations in budget estimates, revised estimates and actual income and expenditure for each year. Other audit observations cover financial irregularities concerning personal perks and privileges, allowances, financial incentives and investment of surplus funds.

Dr Akram Chaudhry has been investigated twice before, but skipped accountability each time. Back in 2015, a Special Audit conducted by the Auditor General Punjab on the direction of the Governor/Chancellor had found 183 cases of irregularities, misuse of authority and financial embezzlement during his tenure at Sargodha University from 2010 to 2014.

The same year, a high-powered committee led by the chief secretary Punjab, besides confirming the above audit observations, had pointed out additional instances of mismanagement and corruption in the establishment of private campuses well as in the award of contracts and purchase of machinery in various development projects of the university. In one instance, as per HEC report, well over Rs600 million were spent to build a hospital, but the PC-1 was prepared after the construction was over.

Sources in the HEC estimate the consequent financial loss to the university exchequer through embezzlement of public money in the above-mentioned cases of budgetary and other fiscal irregularities as well as through alleged corruption in other cases of college affiliations, private campuses and development projects, could amount to around Rs.5 billion.

Dr Chaudhary, while responding all the allegations of HEC audit report told The News when contacted for his comments that HEC has no right to audit the autonomous body as it is a provincial subject.

Earlier, internal audit and CMIT has cleared me in its investigation. The background of the HEC inquiry is that the former chairman of the Commission Dr Mukhtar has gone against me and launched the inquiry in his personal capacity when i applied for the post of chairman HEC. I have earned anger of the local MPs through my transparent policies therefore, they did not want me as third time Vice Chancellor of the University.

He added that he was not accused of any corruption in the HEC audit report but only procedural mistakes were pointed out. As for as, affiliation of colleges was concerned, i did not exploit my powers and did what the affiliation committee of the university recommended, he said.

He further added that all the appointments and administrative decisions were approved by the University Syndicate.

The spokesman of the NAB confirmed the report saying the NAB opened inquiry against the former VC University of Sargodha Dr. Akram Chaudhry and other officials involved in the embezzlement.

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