HEC devolved at the altar of politics

Like the Federal Education Ministry before it, now the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is being devolved to the provinces. The very ingredient that strengthens the fabric of a society — education– is being adulterated through a planned strategy.

Some portfolios are to be held by the federal government due to the nature of their strategic importance. For instance, letting provinces have independent foreign policies would be suicidal. Similarly, while provincial governments should manage the education infrastructure in their respective jurisdiction–which they were already doing–they should not have any control over the curriculum being taught. Every school in every province should have the same curriculum to maintain unity. Imagine if different lessons of Pakistan’s history pop up in different parts of the country? The consequences will be severe in the long run, and inter-provincial animosity will increase. Pakistan’s ideological debate would gain further energy and unrest would result.

Even General Zia-ul-haq’s education reforms, that strangled the country’s education system, will seem petty.

Dr Attaur Rahman served as the founding chairman of HEC from 2002 to 2008. Under his leadership, the organization took various bold steps that were unprecedented. From 2003 to 2008, fifty-one new universities and degree-awarding institutes were added to the country’s education infrastructure, and the university enrollment rose from 135,000 to 400, 000 students. A digital library was founded to make  scholarly publications available to students around the country. Pakistan’s Fulbright Program turned into the biggest Fulbright program in the world, sending thousands of students to the United States for Masters and PhD programs. The number of international conference and journal publications by Pakistani students experienced a stark rise.

HEC had some major achievements, but it had its share of flaws. I interviewed Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy back in December 2008 regarding the performance of the HEC under Dr Rahman. As a qualified critic, Dr Hoodbhoy pointed out that the HEC certainly increased the number of enrolled students and PhD students, but that quality was being compromised. He explained how various colleges had been given university status, just to show an increase in degree-awarding bodies. The infrastructure of these college-turned-universities was poor and the facilities remain weak.

We can criticize the HEC for not meeting its full potential, but news of its devolution to the provinces or of its dismantling is very disturbing. Pakistan needs a central body to maintain and promote higher education standards. HEC was able to show progress because it was given massive funding in the early years, and it was run by a qualified person (and not a ‘seasoned’ politician). Unlike most government branches, where it is hard to spot where money is being spent, the HEC’s work is visible in the form of various scholarship and infrastructural projects. It has been hailed internationally for an outstanding rise in Pakistan’s higher education standards.

Thousands of scholars are studying around the globe on HEC funded programs today. Pakistan has lately been isolated from the international community, with very few foreign researchers and students visiting the country. In such circumstances, it is important to send Pakistani researchers and students to different countries so that they can promote Pakistan’s image and bring back a diversified experience. Restructuring or dissolving the HEC raises the question of how these programs will be wrapped up and what problems the present scholarship holders will suffer.

Continuity is always a rusty process in developing countries. Regime change in Pakistan has no pattern, so every new government wants to rid itself of the legacy of the previous government regardless of what is at stake. Since the HEC was born in the Pervez Musharraf era, it was bound to irritate the present government. Devolving the HEC to the provinces essentially means that the federal government will no longer need to allocate a sizable fund for higher education in the country. The job of securing funds will fall into the hands of politicians, who seem to have little respect for the production of knowledge.

Devolution would be tantamount to the demise of the HEC, and that is the last thing Pakistan needs.

Published in The Express Tribune Blog on 4th of April, 2011

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