Tuesday February 07, 2023

Save the HEC

April 24, 2021

The Higher Education Commission (Amendment) Ordinance 2021, promulgated by the government last month, has severely dented the pro-youth and pro-reforms credentials of the ruling PTI.

The PTI emerged as the largest parliamentary party in the 2018 elections largely on the back of sentiment among the urban middle classes, particularly the youth, against perceived corruption, misuse of power and inefficient public service delivery. The electorate expected the government to ensure meritocracy, transparency and rule of law through systematic reforms to improve governance. The hope was that with a new leadership, the vision of a drastic ‘change’ could be realized.

Mid-way in the government’s tenure, most of these expectations remain unmet. The government has struggled to build the right team that could deliver on the promises it had made. The choice for leadership in PTI-led provinces has been questioned by all stakeholders; the federal cabinet has been constantly reshuffled; appointments on key positions in the civil bureaucracy and key departments such as the police have resembled a game of musical chair and confusion; and disconnect at the policy level has ensued from the question of going to the IMF to opening trade with India.

A number of key individuals, brought in with much fanfare, were removed unceremoniously. These include various federal ministers including those for finance, interior, and information; chairpersons of the FBR and the BOI; governors of the State Bank, special assistants for health, petroleum, digital Pakistan and other portfolios and heads of various other key institutions with little sign of improvement in any of these realms.

The government has now turned its attention towards the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Unlike most of the institutions mentioned above though, the HEC was established as an independent regulatory authority to reduce political interference and give it a national character. This was provided through its composition that included members from all federating units, financial autonomy and security of tenure for the chairperson and the members.

The HEC Ordinance changes all of this. It places the HEC under the Ministry of Education, revoking its independent status; it cuts down the tenure of its chairperson from four to two years; and changes the composition of its members. This essentially means the end of the HEC as we know it, raising severe concerns in various quarters, especially among the academic community.

Four key questions must be asked in this regard. First, what led to such drastic action against an independent national regulatory body? Second, what message does it send? Third, what implication would it have for the higher education sector? And, lastly, what will be the political fallout for the government?

The government has not issued any official clarification or justification of this action. Nor did any official record come to light of any discussion or consultation at relevant forums that recommended such action. No research, data or a charge sheet against the HEC exists that necessitates it. Two articles written by a former chairman of the HEC and a leaked letter written by the PM Office to the HEC on the issue of funding research institutions associated with him, allegedly make this action person centric and aimed at removing an independent-minded chairman, bypassing the due process provided in the existing law.

The idea of trampling over an independent national regulator on a whimsical basis or, even worse, at the behest of certain vested interests, reeks of an authoritarian streak that the government will do well to avoid. The use of a presidential ordinance, rather than amendment in the law after due diligence and debate in parliament, is especially telling.

While removing a well-respected professional in such a manner undermines the efforts towards attracting highly qualified Pakistanis based abroad to serve the country, the implications of this action go beyond just the change in leadership. If the government is successful in bringing proposed changes to the HEC’s structure, the commission will lose its independence as the premier standard setting national authority. It will be under the thumb of the government and the non-specialist bureaucratic apparatus that needs major structural reforms itself.

The fate of a number of key initiatives such as the implementation of the ‘Undergraduate Education Policy 2020’, compliance with the National Qualifications Framework and reforms in the R&D grants award procedure will become uncertain. There are concerns that much-needed focus on enhancing accountability, transparency and quality standards in managing higher education in Pakistan will suffer.

The government has already cut the HEC’s funding drastically during the last two years. This forced a number of universities to charge higher fees and reduce financial aid, scholarships and research grants. Thousands of young luminaries, especially those from the lower income backgrounds and deprived areas, looked up to the HEC for educational support that potentially provided a path for upward social mobility. These actions have resulted in grave disappointment among them. If the situation is not rectified, the PTI risks losing ground in its core constituency.

Of course, no institution including the HEC is above criticism, critical scrutiny or accountability. However, the procedure for these has already been provided in the law that governs the body. There should be an open debate on the role of the HEC, its performance during the last few years and the remedies needed for further improvement. Without such deliberations, drastic actions that the Ordinance entails can find no justification.

A more transparent, meritocratic and rules-based approach is what the electorate expected when electing the PTI into power. There is still time to roll back actions that would make the running of the HEC opaque, subject to partisan interference and whimsical. The HEC must be saved from falling prey to a decision that will have devastating consequences for the management of higher education in the country.

The writer is a public policy analyst based in Islamabad.


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