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April 1, 2021

The HEC in a mess

Opinion

April 1, 2021

Former HEC chairman Dr Tariq Binauri.

The HEC has fallen from its glorious days under Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, the first chairperson in 2002, to a complete mess today. It is even worse off than what it was when I left the HEC in 2013.

This is an institution that the whole nation was proud of when we took a principled stand and withstood political pressure when asked to verify the degrees of all parliamentarians by the Supreme Court and the Election Commission in 2010.

Despite being punished by the government for this effort, in which 47 parliamentarians were found to have fake degrees, including sitting ministers, we were ‘rewarded’ with a 40 percent cut in funding, and with threats of devolution and demolition under the 18th Amendment, which the Supreme Court held back. We not only survived but came back with a bang. The global rankings of Pakistani universities went up from none of the universities ranked in the top 250 universities of Asia as per QS World University Rankings in 2009 to 10 universities by 2013. Unfortunately, the number remains the same in 2021 rankings, despite a significant increase in funding after I left the HEC.

Dr Atta-ur-Rahman led the most successful period of the HEC, called the golden era, to the extent that even India wanted to emulate his model, and that of the HEC, while we in Pakistan are still squabbling over the devolution. India today is converting its UGC into an HEC, which we pioneered in 2002. The HEC had at some point thrived. Unfortunately, Dr Atta was edged out of the HEC by the then government as he would not compromise on reduction in funding for human resource development, particularly the PhD scholarships and post-doc fellowships, foreign faculty hiring program, research programs including the acquisition of research equipment, and for many other similar programs that he initiated.

Today, many people write on the HEC without having even an iota of understanding of how it works. The HEC has a large eco-system and footprint and is unlike any other state organization. Established through an ordinance in 2002, it regulates over 220 public and private universities across Pakistan, each established under its own Act with its own policies and procedures. In addition, the HEC must coordinate its activities with the Planning Commission, the ministries of finance, education, science & technology, and the Prime Minister’s Office, in addition to the governors, chief ministers, provincial HECs, provincial education ministers and foreign funding agencies.

Only those associated with the management of large academic and research organizations, and the government, can do the balancing act among all the state organizations and can govern it well. Hence it is essential that any chairperson that is appointed has the administrative and research qualification, and the experience and public relationship skills to run it well. If not done right, the HEC fails, and the whole eco-system of higher education in the country collapses – like it just did.

Today, the HEC has failed for the same reasons, as those who have been put at the helm of affairs do not have the appropriate qualifications and experience. The current chairperson is being touted by his supporters as a world class scholar, while in fact he has to his credit only four refereed journal publications, while the rest are reports and conference presentations.

As a result, the HEC today is full of mismanagement and bad governance. Board meetings are seldom held. Consultants, some of whom are not qualified, are brought in from outside at very high salaries even though qualified staff is available from within the HEC, which is undergoing a NAB enquiry and a federal audit objection for the very same reason. Regular meetings of the vice chancellors are not called, and the provincial HECs are also ignored.

Human resource development is the primary mission of the HEC. To be able to increase both the quality and quantity of skilled youth, which is the future of Pakistan, the number of quality faculty, especially with PhDs, must be increased significantly (currently less than 30 percent of the faculty have PhDs). The HEC suffered the single largest setback and Pakistan was pushed back years when the current HEC fumbled with the HRD programs in the last three years. Out of more than 8,000 scholarships available, less than 500 were awarded by the current administration. As an example, out of 200 scholars that were to be sent to 200 top ranked universities, only 40 scholarships were awarded.

In another initiative, called the US-Pakistan Knowledge Corridor PhD Scholarship Program, which was to send 1500 scholars for PhD studies in top US ranked universities, only 100 scholarships were awarded. Likewise, only 40 postdocs were awarded out of the 1,000 approved. Another program approved by the Knowledge Economy Task Force was to send hundreds of scholars to top universities abroad. Not a single scholarship has been awarded so far for reasons unknown. Underutilization of all these programs has severely affected human resource development in Pakistan over the last three years affecting its potential economic growth.

On the academic side, the termination of two years Bachelors and Masters, of a revised undergraduate curriculum, and of direct admission into the PhD program after a Bachelors degree (without research or Masters) has already created enough chaos in many universities who have excused that it will be nearly impossible to follow the new plan of action.

The HEC today is in shambles. The prime minister, who is the controlling authority of the HEC, must take charge and revive the HEC under the right leadership to what it was in its golden years. The future of Pakistan belongs to its skilled youth. The HEC is a national institution that can take the country on its path to economic recovery, development, and prosperity.

The writer is a former chairperson of the HEC.