Tuesday September 28, 2021

Higher education: governance - Part - I

The recent removal of the chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), by reducing his tenure to just two years from four through an ordinance, has created a controversy and debate between two groups – those supporting outgoing chairman and his policies and those who support the policies followed by earlier leadership. In this debate, unfortunately the most important issue, which is the root cause of poor outcomes in higher education – the flawed system of governance – is completely left out.

Without delving into the ongoing controversy, in this article, I discuss some fundamental weaknesses in the governance of the HEC and public sector Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) which need to be addressed. In the second part of this two-part series, I propose to specify the reforms required to address such weaknesses and improve outcomes of higher education.

There are about 214 universities and institutions (HEIs) engaged in higher education in the country, out of which about 131 are in the public sector. The HEC’s annual funding of HEIs during the last five years as recurring grant has been approximately Rs60 billion, in addition to development grants from governments and The EC. While this level of annual budget appears inadequate for the higher education of the fifth largest country in the world, owing to poor governance much of this paltry funding is also wasted.

The stark reality is that public sector HEIs, which should be places of higher learning, research and innovation, have become more like employment agencies. Barring a few, the purpose of most seem to be to get their budgets with a view to pay salaries to a large number of faculty and administrative staff, a significant portion of which is probably not employable elsewhere, plus construction of infrastructure. Although there is no formal study by the HEC or any other organization, the undeniable conclusion is that the majority who graduate from HEIs are not able to get appropriate employment.

There are multiple reasons for the poor state of public-sector higher education, but one major and pervasive cause is serious weaknesses in the governance framework. These include the following: one, while the HEIs are established under federal or provincial laws, a significant portion of funding comes from the HEC. Neither governments nor the HEC have created adequate mechanisms that reward good and penalise poor performance. The bottom line: no accountability for outcomes.

Secondly, governance structures and forums of public-sector HEIs are highly confusing, and do not promote clarity of roles and responsibilities for effective decision making, accountability and performance culture. Most HEIs have been created through laws that are carbon copies of a few institutions that existed prior to Independence.

Third, there are too many forums with overlapping mandates, as governance is divided between chancellor (president / prime minister / governor / chief minister), Senate, syndicate, vice-chancellor (who is CEO), federal and provincial HECs and provincial higher education departments. Excessive and disconnected forums do not communicate and work together, cause serious delays, red tape and ineffective oversight.

Fourth, funding is done partly by the HEC and partly by governments, partly ad hoc and partly using a flawed formula with little relevance to outcomes such as the quality of graduates the HEI is producing, how many get jobs, become entrepreneurs and what is the quality of research. Research in most HEIs is also questionable in terms of its usefulness and relevance to business, industry, agriculture as HEIs remain disconnected with the real sectors of the economy.

Fifth, hardly any review or impact analysis has ever been made of an HEI through an independent third party to evaluate its outcomes versus cost. Sixth, many HEIs have also been created on the whims of the political leadership, without proper assessment of need and adequate plans and feasibility studies.

Seventh, a review of the websites of selected top HEIs indicates that they contain limited information regarding their performance and impact; and none publish their annual reports. Perhaps a few may be doing so for internal forums and the HEC, but these are not publicly available. None of them publish their budgets, or medium or long-term plans.

Eight, the system of accounting of the HEC as well as the HEIs remains archaic, based on the 19th century single entry system. Almost none of them prepare their financial statements based on recognized frameworks of accounting. Getting them audited from credible firms of auditors would be a remote possibility.

Ninth, Governing Boards (Syndicates), barring a few, are composed of people with little commitment or stakes in the HEIs. Governments nominate most of the members on the basis of the offices they hold (secretaries of federal and provincial governments, who hardly have any time for such work), judges, MNAs / MPAs and others (categorised as eminent persons) mostly based on their connections with the power corridors. Very few of them have any understanding of governance principles, the objectives of the HEIs and the fiduciary nature of the responsibilities of board members.

Tenth, there is a serious disconnect in the appointment of the VC, the chief executive of an HEI. While the VC is appointed for a tenure of three to four years by the PM/ CM, the overall management of the HEI is vested in the Syndicate. This seriously undermines the Syndicate’s oversight role. The qualifications prescribed for the VC’s position usually include PhD and a certain number of publications in research journals, which has little nexus with the role of the VC as CEO. The VC is also chairman of the Syndicate, and as such, he/she sets an agenda and fixes its meetings, which compromises the independence and effectiveness of the Syndicate. Consequently, meetings of the Syndicate are infrequent and VCs frequently exercise the Syndicate’s powers on the pretext of emergency, which are then ratified in the subsequent meetings.

The eleventh reason is related to the websites of the HEC and some of the top institutions, which indicate low quality of content, with hardly any digital connectivity with the stakeholders. It seems much of the communication within the institutions and with the HEC remain manual and use of technology remains limited. In a world of exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, block chain, virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics and drones etc, there is very little online / digital learning. The amount of data that is available and could be utilised by the HEC and the HEIs and others could be massive, but it is neither organized properly nor used productively. Virtually no innovation is reflected from their websites. Good HEIs develop and issue thought leadership on matters of public importance, which is completely missing in Pakistani HEIs.

And, lastly, most of the above cited governance weaknesses also exist in the HEC itself, as the Commission largely comprises federal and provincial secretaries, VCs and academicians with very small participation of people from the corporate sector with experience in governance and management. The latest annual report on its website was of FY015-16, and contained paltry information on its performance with nothing relating to the outcomes of HEIs.

To be continued

The writer is a chartered accountant (FCA), and has done significant work in the education sector.

Twitter: @Asad_Ashah