Save higher education

Daily: The News
Date: 08.04.11

It must be either lunacy or revenge otherwise no plausible justification can be found to
dissolve or devolve Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan – under the pretext of
the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Lunacy because the HEC has been performing
brilliantly in the field of higher education and research since its inception in 2002 thereby
leaving no room for its rejection; revenge because the HEC has just debunked the fake
degree scam thereby exposing the true character of more than one hundred legislators of
Pakistan.

The HEC was not an intruder into the system of Pakistan. It was the failure of its
predecessor, University Grant Commission (UGC), to serve higher education and research
in Pakistan that led to emergence of the HEC. Secondly, it was the report published by the
World Bank and UNESCO in 2000 lamenting (causes and effects of) backwardness of
developing countries including Pakistan that spurred Zubaida Jalal, Minister for Education,
into action to constitute a task force to advance higher education and research in Pakistan.
On the recommendations of the task force, the HEC was constituted.

As a unit, the HEC has performed three functions: first, quality assurance of higher
education and research; second, provision of funds for higher education and research; and
third, accreditation of universities (both public and private) and the degrees issued by
them. These functions are interdependent in such a manner as detaching any of them from
the other will undo the whole scheme, besides nullifying the rationale for existence of the
HEC. Further, autonomy of the HEC is a vital force to this triangle. Nevertheless, it is yet
incomprehensible why past performance of the HEC in the field of science and technology
to prop up Pakistan should not be a justification for its permanence.

Necessary and revered is provincial autonomy and so does the survival of the HEC at the
federal level. To handle a simple education project like basic and secondary education
where lesser investment is required and simpler mechanism is involved, the past
performance of provinces is dismal. The stories of existence of ghost-schools and
absentee-teaching are known to all. The question is can provinces cater to the needs of
higher education and research which is intrinsically change-prone and complex? Further, if
that experiment fails who will be held responsible?

Attached to devolution of higher education and research to provinces, there are two more
problems. The first is the issue of copy rights and patency. For instance, a seed of wheat is
genetically engineered in one province, the copy rights of that seed will be owned by that
province because of expenditure incurred during the development, besides contribution of
provincial brains. That seed would be sold to other provinces and profit would be earned
for reinvestment in the seller province. Similarly, a method of treatment invented in one
province will be patented in the same province and patients from other provinces would not
be prioritized for treatment. These foreseeable trends would fuel provincialism and
undermine federalism. The second is the issue of level of development in provinces.
Currently, the development level and available brainpower in all provinces is not equal.
Against that background, for instance, one kind of syllabus and one level of financial and
intellectual investment will produce one quality of brains who may outsmart brains of other
provinces thereby making one province more developed than the rest. Once that happens,
the more developed province will never agree to return to the federal formula of higher
education and research, if the provincial formula fails. Again, in that case, provincialism will
thrive at the cost of federalism.

Currently, with reference to its structure and one portion of its functions, the HEC
Ordinance 2002 is enshrined in Article 270 AA (2) (a) of the Constitution of 1973 – unless
an act of parliament or a presidential ordinance abolishes the HEC. Secondly, apropos of
the relevant function of the HEC, the fake degree scandal might not be the anti-politicians
move of the HEC but a duty to perform as per Provision 10 (1) (o) of the HEC Ordinance
2002. Had there been the UGC, the fake degree issue would have not been laid bare.

The part I and II of Federal Legislative List (FLL) includes the second portion of functions of
the HEC while, with dissolution of Concurrent Legislative List (CCL), the third portion of its
functions has gone to provinces – though amongst the three halves of functions, several
functions are common. Hence, if the CLL takes entries number 38 (Curriculum, syllabus,
planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education) and 39 (Islamic
education) along to provinces, the rest of functions are still left behind.

Even in the light of the Amendment, whether or not the HEC is a regulatory authority
established under a Federal Law as per entry 6 in part II of FLL, it is a moot point if the HEC
comes under the Council of Common Interests (CCI) as per Article 154 (1): “The Council
shall formulate and regulate policies in relation to matters in Part II of the Federal
Legislative List and shall exercise supervision and control over related institutions.” The
question is whether or not the HEC is a ‘related’ institution to the CCI because the CCI is
related to dispute resolutions like how water be divided amongst provinces. Apparently, the
HEC is not related to the CCI because the division of provincial funds (including the
education head) will take place under NFC awards. The CCI seems more related to that
distribution mechanism than to the HEC.

Nevertheless, the Amendment is silent if both HEC and CCI assert relevance to certain
entries given in part II of the FLL (like entry 7 focusing on ‘…planning and coordination of
scientific and technological research’ and entry 12 focusing on ‘standards in institutions for
higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions), which one should
prevail over the other?

Under the 18th Amendment, Article 270AA allows the legislature to alter or amend the
charter of the HEC through either an act of parliament or a presidential ordinance to keep
the HEC federal. The point is not whether the passage is navigable or not, but whether
there is a will to do it or not.

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