Merit and the HEC

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 12.11.14

On November 1, 2014 the incumbent federal government announced its (federal)
recruitment policy. With regard to the policy, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif emphasised
observing merit strictly when the government offers employment opportunities (in civil
service positions ranging from grade one to grade 15) to people. The announcement of
merit-based recruitment is a good omen for the country. If merit could also be observed in
the appointment of the chairperson of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the
controlling authority of which is the PM himself, people would utter a sigh of relief. The PM
has not given the reasons behind why the recruitment of a person at grade one should be
strictly on merit whereas the recruitment of a person at grade 21 or 22 (such as the
chairperson HEC) was not strictly on merit.

In the context of the merit-based policy of the federal government, the HEC case study is
relevant to understanding the prevalent recruitment patterns at the federal level, as the
pattern is pregnant with important consequences. The question is this: why should a grade
one employee bear the brunt of the PM’s merit policy? If a federal minister such as Ahsan
Iqbal, who is also federal minister for planning, development and reforms (PDR), can
manoeuvre affairs in the ministry of education, training and standards in higher education,
the cabinet division and the PM Secretariat in favour of incumbent Chairperson HEC Dr
Mukhtar Ahmed, why should a person be deprived of the chance of similar third party
manoeuvring on his behalf to get employed at the grade one level as a sweeper or a
gardener in the HEC? Prima facie, there is a contradiction in the PM’s merit policy between
the appointment of the chairperson HEC and the appointment of a sweeper in the same
organisation. It is also not known why a person who secures a position such as chairperson
HEC, in violation of the standards of merit, should observe merit while he is recruiting a
sweeper in his own organisation. The inference drawn is simple: if the federal government
has already appointed the head of an organisation in violation of merit, it will be violated
again when recruiting for grade one to grade 15 posts.

The HEC case is also interesting because, aside from several other points, Ahsan Iqbal was
guilty of overlooking the fourth prerequisite for selecting a suitable candidate for the post of
chairperson HEC. The fourth criterion was clearly mentioned in the summary sent to the PM
Secretariat by Ahsan Iqbal, chairperson of the search committee, on February 12, 2014:
“Since [the] HEC is a recipient of heavy funds from the development budget, the selected
candidates must have strong integrity.” Not a day goes by when the national dailies
(English and Urdu) do not carry news revealing one aspect or another of financial
irregularities at the HEC. Just a few days ago news appeared that the auditor general of
Pakistan conveyed his objection to the HEC over unauthorised payments of Rs 2.7 million
to Dr Mukhtar Ahmed during his tenure as the executive director of the HEC. Dr Mukhtar
Ahmed was found guilty of withdrawing the amount from the national exchequer against his
salary, contrary to the salary package advertised in newspapers for the post of the
executive director and without the prior approval of the ministry of finance. Dr Ahmed was
also the chief accounting officer meaning that he was disbursing his own salary. After being
appointed as the executive director in February 2013, he changed his salary package later
and kept withdrawing unauthorised money as salary from the national kitty, according to the
audit report.

Against this background, the grave injustice Ahsan Iqbal did was that he did not demand an
annual performance report of Dr Mukhtar Ahmed (the report was due in March 2014) from
the HEC to see if he fulfilled the fourth selection criterion relating to a candidate’s financial
integrity. Dr Mukhtar Ahmed was appointed chairperson HEC on April 16, 2014. Ahsan Iqbal
committed another grave injustice against the HEC and the people of Pakistan; he
overlooked the fact that there was a history of negative audit reports against Dr Mukhtar
Ahmed from when he worked at the University of Arid Agriculture, Rawalpindi. At that time,
the audit department, government of Punjab, in its audit report for the year 2000-2001,
asked for the recovery of Rs 838,412 from Dr Mukhtar Ahmed.

If only this were the end of the story. Section 14 (4) of the HEC Ordinance, 2002 reads:
“The Commission shall, after the end of every financial year, submit to the controlling
authority the audited annual statement of accounts of the commission, together with the
report of the auditor general of Pakistan.” As per section three of the ordinance, the PM is
the controlling authority. The question is: which lobby in the PM Secretariat is dumping
these reports before the inside story is noticed by the PM? The ministry of education,
training and standards in higher education has been a silent spectator whereas the ministry
of PDR is an active stakeholder in HEC affairs, especially where the appointment of HEC
officials is concerned. The logic of this incongruity is not yet known. The effects of
malpractice must be trickling down to universities as sordid stories are known to all except
the PM. Such malfeasance is fodder for protesting parties and their supporters.

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