An open letter to the HEC chairperson

January 30, 2022

An open letter to the HEC chairperson

My Dear Tariq Banuri,

Please accept my apologies for changing your official designation from chairman to chairperson. I will give reasons for it by and by. Secondly, also accept my apologies for writing this open letter at all. I have done so in order to point out what the HEC, the government, standing committees of the parliament or the powers-that-be may do to improve higher education in this country. I will indicate which parts of this letter pertain to you personally and which do not. There are four parts of it (a) commendation; (b) if wishes were horses (i.e. things which cannot be done); (c) things which can be done but not by you alone; and (d) things which can be done by you.


Firstly, I commend you on your dignified interviews and legal battle which has made you the chairperson of the HEC again. This is not only because you are a friend of mine (or so, in my naivety I assume) but because I oppose dictatorial actions by the state — no matter which government sits in Islamabad — such as cutting short tenures of the incumbents of public offices especially without giving them a chance to justify themselves. Secondly, I commend you on making efforts to improve the standard of our obsolete BA system by making it a proper four-year course under universities. I should add that the BA of our colleges should also be of four years and for this the HEC should acquire supervisory powers. As education has been devolved to the provinces, I do not know how this is possible — perhaps through provincial HECs who should be on the ‘same page.’ Monitoring, quality control and inspections are certainly needed to make the BA a worthwhile degree.

If wishes were horses (i.e. what cannot be done.)

Actually, dear friend, here we are face-to-face with the managerial revolution which is overtaking the whole academic world and not just Pakistan. In the name of accountability, transparency and efficiency etc managers have become powerful and ascendant over academics. Instead of academics acting as a collegial body of equals (the VC is not a boss in theory but primus inter pares as you know), the faculty has become like workers in a factory. They do not appoint the managers (registrars, controllers of examinations, treasurers etc), the managers appoint them, promote then and dismiss them. The administrative heads of universities, faculties and departments are fast becoming mere managers. In South Asia, for fear of anti-colonial ideas, vice chancellors were often non-academics (judges, ICS officers and even military officers) and the syndicate (or Board of Governors) was packed with non-academics who enjoyed precedence over academics.

In modern South Asia, this tradition continues. In both public and private universities academics get only a secondary role, if at all they get one, while non-academics enjoy real power. Now can you, for instance, tell military officers to let civilian professors head their universities? No. So, let us move on. Part of the neo-liberal policies is to cut down the expenditure on universities and make them pay for themselves. In the UK and the US, I know, one must get grants to continue with one’s job. This acquisition of grants is in the hands of managers so no matter how much of a genius you may be, you have to please the managers who will count numbers and know nothing about quality. In Pakistan, too, getting the grants is becoming important. This trend for money from ‘useful’ subjects generally affects the social sciences, humanities and philosophical studies adversely. So, we create the new barbarians who know less about living in peace and more about making gadgets and piles of money for the corporate sector. In Pakistan, the managerial revolution is taking place helped, again in the name of accountability and efficiency, by the HEC. The semester system with its exact counting of teaching hours, the computers which mark attendance and even, in some cases, the number of hours spent by faculty on the campus, student evaluation of faculty, reporting and paper work — all of these contemporary techniques of control and regimentation have reduced the personal prestige and feeling of freedom of academics. However, nobody can do anything about it so let us move on.

The HEC can begin by making at least some universities as autonomous as they once were, decreasing the race for producing sub-standard PhDs by reducing the demand for them and making academic jobs more attractive.

What can be done by you, your successors and other powerful institutions.

The HEC can begin by making at least some universities as autonomous as they once were, decreasing the race for producing sub-standard PhDs by reducing the demand for them and making academic jobs more attractive. To make the universities more autonomous the HEC has to agree to shed some of the powers it has arrogated to itself. The HEC even gives salaries to academics in the tenure system. It is the university which should do that not the HEC. The HEC appoints PhD supervisors. It is the ASRB (Advanced Studies and Research Board) of the universities which should appoint supervisors not the HEC. The HEC validates degrees. The university should do that.

For reducing the rat race for giving fake PhD’s, you have to cut down the demand and the supply will decrease itself. This you can do by ensuring that a faculty member is not required to have a PhD to teach in most universities. Actually, this brings me to my proposal. There should be research universities (Tier 1), teaching universities (Tier 2) and university-colleges (Tier 3). I propose that the HEC should not exercise any control over the first two tiers. Over the third tier, the university-colleges, the HEC should exercise such control as may be necessary. Realistically speaking, we cannot have more than two research universities and, despite this name, they too will teach. However, only they should supervise PhD students and not the teaching universities and university-colleges. The teaching universities should be such institutions as were universities before the HEC was created and the university-colleges will be all the degree-giving institutions functioning in different places where there were only colleges before. They may also be colleges in cities which have been given the status of universities. They are both in the public and private sectors. In the research universities the faculty should enter with doctorates from the top two-hundred of the world’s universities and publications in the best academic journals. They should be paid high salaries, as in the tenure-track system, which should be revised to make them commensurate with the corporate sector. This faculty should be well-published. And please, this time we should look for quality, not quantity. In the teaching universities, a PhD should be necessary only for the rank of full professor but the emphasis should be on good teaching and not research. In the university colleges there should be no requirement of PhD or publications at all. This sword should be removed from the heads of the faculty but good teaching should be given pride of place.

Once this requirement for PhD and publications is removed from a very large number of universities, the whole racket of fake journals published by one’s friends and articles with ten names as co-authors will disappear or be significantly reduced. Has the HEC ever sat down to ponder over the bane of multiple co-authors? I do not know about the natural sciences but in many of the social sciences, I really do not understand precisely how so many people could have collaborated on a single article. I do not have a solution to this problem but I feel that it will only be by our focus on quality rather than quantity that even this evil will be decreased. But quality does not inhere in the mere quantity of articles one has published in journals. The best statement of one’s lifetime of scholarly work is published in the form of books at least in the social sciences and humanities. Even scientists (in physical and life sciences) publish books. I can think of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, James Jeans’s The Stars in Their Courses (1931), Richard Dawkin’s, The Selfish Gene, Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and so many others which even I can read. As for erudite scientific works which I cannot hope to understand, shelves groan with their weight and they are by a single author. Tell me how many scientists in Pakistan, and some are really respectable members of their profession, have written books. Could it be that our policies are discouraging books and promoting fake authorship? So, please count books, chapters in books, encyclopedia articles as academic achievements provided they are published by respectable presses.

What you can do personally in your remaining tenure.

First, please get the designation ‘chairman’ changed to chairperson. It is sexist, part of androcentric generics, and the world has abandoned it to include women. Second, you can request, persuade, instruct, or order the people who serve in the HEC to at least answer people’s letters, show some courtesy and actually do that for which they are paid or tell us why they cannot do it. Sometimes, if one sends a book to be counted equivalent to two articles, it takes years and the official paid to do the job stops replying to queries. This is what happens if one applies for a research grant. One meets with such hostility, mistrust and silent suspicion of corruption that one loses whatever self-respect one has salvaged out of the system. It might be a good idea to expose your staff to some sensitivity training. Third, you can get initiate the process of bringing about the changes suggested in (c) above even if it is too late to make changes in your remaining tenure.


Tariq Rahman

The author is an occasional contributor.

An open letter to the HEC chairperson