Thursday May 30, 2024

Search for the HEC head

By Dr Javaid Laghari
April 15, 2021

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) is the engine for the socio-economic development of Pakistan through human resource development and research. Its responsibilities include, among others, raising enrollment levels, improving quality, offering scholarship programs for faculty development, strengthening and creating a culture of research, developing international linkages, improving regulatory framework, and the financial sustainability of higher education institutions.

Pakistan has over 220 universities, 1.5 million students and 40,000 faculty, approximately 25 percent of them holding a PhD degree. Each university also has a large number of supporting staff (These universities are in addition to the thousands of colleges that are regulated and controlled by the provincial governments which also need skilled faculty and teachers). In other words, each university, established through its own act of governance, has a very complex multi-tiered ecosystem. To meet global standards, the HEC’s responsibilities include, among others, developing faculty, curriculum, and setting academic and research standards for over hundreds of academic programmes at three different levels of qualifications: Bachelors, Masters and PhD.

The HEC was established through its own ordinance in 2002, and unlike many other federal organizations, its administration is a challenging and herculean task. The HEC regulates all these universities, each established with its own legislation and governed by its own bodies like the syndicate and the senate. Although most universities are under the control of the provincial governments, including the appointment of the vice chancellors and all senior staff positions, the HEC sets the criteria for the appointment of professors, associate professors, assistant professors and lecturers, including for tenure track positions which the universities appoint through their selection boards.

The position of chairperson is therefore like that of a ‘super vice chancellor’ of a ‘super-duper university’. To handle such a complex set of responsibilities, it is essential that the HEC be led by a qualified individual with the right experience, vision and integrity. The HEC Ordinance requires the chairperson “to be a person of international eminence and proven ability who has made significant contribution to higher education as teacher, researcher or administrator.” The Controlling Authority (currently the prime minister of Pakistan) has the power and the discretion of appointing the chairperson directly without a selective process, as was done for the first two chairpersons.

The legal requirements for appointment of the chairperson in simple terms means he / she must be at least at the level of a vice chancellor or a director of an institute, and must have been at least a full tenured professor, which would fulfill the requirement of “significant contribution to research”. The HEC’s own policy regulates that to be a full professor, the candidate must have a PhD degree with minimum of 15 years of teaching experience and have at least “15 research publications in HEC recognized journals” (An associate professor, which is a mid-level faculty appointment, requires only 10 research publications). The requirement of international eminence means global recognition above and beyond that of a VC or a full tenured professor.

The first chairperson, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, was appointed directly by the then president, and had immaculate qualifications and international eminence without an iota of doubt. He had served as the director of a major research institute and had hundreds of research publications to his credit. The second chairperson (the writer) was also appointed directly by the then prime minister. He had previously served as director of the NASA Space Power Institute, was tenured full professor at a major research university in the US with over a hundred research publications and research funding of over millions of dollars. He had also served as the president of a leading private university in Pakistan. Both individuals met all the criteria of “teacher, researcher, administrator and international eminence” for chairperson HEC. However, the following two chairpersons were appointed by the PML-N government through a sham selection process.

The last chairperson did not even qualify as per the HEC Ordinance. He had never administered an institution of higher education, was never a tenured full professor, and had received no research funding. He did not even graduate a single PhD student as a major advisor. Above all, he had only four publications in HEC recognized journals which would not even qualify him to be an associate professor in any public sector university in Pakistan as per the HEC’s policy. He clearly had no international eminence yet was appointed as chairman HEC.

It is the faculty, and not bricks and mortars, which is the soul of the university that determines the quality of its instructions and research. The HEC awards thousands of scholarships to qualified students every year for PhD to ensure that the faculty growth requirement is met. Yet during the tenure of the last chairperson, the HEC fumbled to award only a few, creating a big vacuum in future faculty hiring. Over 50 new universities have been established by the provincial governments and the private sector just in the last three years. We are also fast entering the age of fourth generation technologies, including artificial intelligence, cyber security, biotechnologies, business intelligence, and robotics, among others. In a few years, we will feel the pinch when we do not find the required faculty to teach and conduct research in these disciplines while the world moves ahead of us.

The challenge to the HEC is that it must ensure that trained and qualified faculty is available to accommodate the mushrooming growth of universities and new emerging technologies. The HEC is a strategic organization, and Pakistan cannot afford to bear the damage inflicted upon higher education and research unless some emergent and drastic steps are taken immediately by the government and the incoming chairperson. This time, however, the government must ensure that the chairperson is appointed on merit as per the criteria laid down in the HEC Ordinance.

The writer is a former chairperson of the HEC.