PAKISTAN: Flood drowns out fake degrees scandal

As Pakistan's Election Commission began its first hearings into parliamentarians' fake degrees last week some feared the scandal had been pushed out of the limelight by the devastating floods. Nonetheless, the degree debacle is straining the credibility of the country's higher education and election systems.

The floods that have ravaged one-fifth of the country may have come as a godsend for many of Pakistan's lawmakers who possess either fake or invalid educational degrees, as an unrelenting campaign in the media has, for now, been diverted towards the deluge.

This has played into the hands of the government, which is hoping to delay an investigation into fake degrees. With so many lawmakers under investigation for lying about their qualifications, the extent of deception justifies calling mid-term elections, say some observers.

"I'd like to see re-elections," said Q Isa Daudpota, a former faculty member of Edinburgh University, Scotland, and a rights activist based in Islamabad. "I couldn't care less which party benefits, but in the long haul the people of Pakistan will benefit if we demand a clean up of the assemblies."

However, he believes there will be delaying tactics. "For the ruling politicians the status quo is the most desirable."

But at a time when a fragile democratic government is grappling with a tottering economy, rising militancy and a major natural disaster, elections would be yet another upheaval. "Everyone's attention is diverted by the floods," Daudpota said.

Already Javaid Laghari, head of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which is carrying out the verification of the disputed degrees, has come under intense pressure to halt the process or slow it down, according to reports.

The HEC, which funds universities and gives recommendations for the award of a charter to a university, is in the process of vetting the degrees of some 816 lawmakers out of a total of 1,170. Some 300 have been verified so far after checking qualifications with the universities.

Topping the list of those under investigation are 12 'fakies' from the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) followed by the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz group, and the Quaid-e-Azam group, with 11 degrees each.

Meanwhile, on 24 August a special committee of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the HEC summoned six parliamentarians at a first hearing "to clarify their position on their respective degrees", according to ECP spokesman Afzal Khan. Only three of them appeared, with at least one claiming ill health.

Another dozen or so parliamentarians were due to appear before the Election Commission on 30 August.

So far the committee has declared 246 degrees to be genuine and 47 to be fake.

If this proportion holds true, one in five provincial and federal lawmakers could be in possession of fake degrees. It may even be higher. "Once all the degrees have been vetted, some say it could well swell to 40%," said Daudpota.

Former president General Pervez Musharraf made it mandatory for those contesting elections to have a minimum of a bachelor degree.

"The idea was to keep some leading players out of the assemblies," explains Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior journalist with the Jang group of newspapers, which also runs the popular Geo television channel.

Some sitting candidates scrambled to obtain degree certificates in order to contest the elections. Meanwhile the condition boosted Musharraf's allies in the religious parties, as a madrassa education was deemed equivalent to a masters degree or a PhD.

After coming to power in 2008, the PPP government waived the condition. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that it remained for those who contested elections in 2008.

AH Nayyar, of Ali Institute, a Lahore-based teacher education institution, points out that the furore over fake degrees began in March this year when a PPP member of the National Assembly, Jamshed Dasti, had his credentials challenged by his opponent, Nawabzada Iftikhar Ahmed Khan Babar of the PML-Q, who accused him of holding a fake degree. The Supreme Court ordered a re-election for that seat.

The fake degrees scandal has brought into question the country's education system, its election oversight institutions, as well as the country's parliamentary system, according to Abid Sulerie of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Balochistan Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sadiq Umrani said the institutions, those involved in issuing fake degrees and ECP staff should also be taken to task for their "ignorance or negligence" when candidates were filing their election nomination papers.

Naeem Sadiq, a Karachi-based business consultant who actively campaigns on pro-democracy issues, said the reason why so many politicians had fake degrees had nothing to do with the condition imposed by Musharraf.

"It has to do with a very incompetent and corrupt Election Commission, very poorly managed universities, and inadequate controls by the HEC over universities."

According to Daudpota the HEC had known of fraudulent degrees and fake institutions at least since 2002 but failed to take action because influential people were involved.

"It still fails to reveal the status of the fake degrees verification exercise on its website. What is needed is a listing of all parliamentarians and their checked degrees, as well as the status of verification by each university. In fact, this vitally important exercise finds no mention on the HEC website," he said.

Nayyar recalled that the University Grants Commission, the precursor of HEC, was misused by its officials. "The UGC head earned a PhD degree for himself in exchange for lending support to the degree awarding status of an institution!"

The HEC and its new leadership brought in new regulations. However Nayyar believes "the recent events have clearly shown that HEC's work was not all that successful".

Meanwhile, Nayyar said: "I think universities are the biggest sufferers in terms of their credibility."

Everyone's degree is now suspect, he said. "The degrees of all the applicants for admission to [Islamabad's] Quaid-i-Azam University, especially from Punjab University, became suspect, and were subjected to strict physical verification. I believe other institutions also did the same."

Now the government, parliament, the education ministry and the ECP were all trying to "drag their feet and delay the whole process, till it gets forgotten", Sadiq said. This could have significant implications, he warned. "We would have set up a tradition of accepting fake degrees and fraudulent politicians."

Even Javed Jabbar, a former information minister in Musharraf's government, believes the ECP should shoulder some of the blame, for it had a crucial responsibility. "It failed abysmally to perform the basic function of document-verification," he told University World News.

However others have put the blame squarely on individual lawmakers.

"It's not about education and whether you need a college degree to be elected. It is about whether someone who lies about who he or she is should be elected or not," pointed out Adil Najam, director of the Frederick S Pardee Centre for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and professor of international relations at Boston University, who sees the scandal from an ethical and moral angle. "It is misrepresentation," Najam said.

However, Najam believes leaving the issue "undisturbed" will only send a signal to everyone, not just parliamentarians, that "lying is OK, that cheating is OK, that misrepresentation is OK".

He added: "I think sunshine [ie transparency] is the best disinfectant and also the best punishment for lying."

In the final analysis, the fake degrees scam will have far-reaching repercussions on Pakistani society as a whole, Najam said.

"The joke that we have made of fake degrees or fake education will also hurt the credibility of real education and real degrees. Eventually, this issue is not only about morality, it is also about the respect for education."

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University and an acclaimed peace activist, also sees the fake degrees issue as pointing to the ethical and moral bankruptcy of a big section of Pakistani society. He explains further:

"A still larger problem is that oftentimes those with completely authentic degrees are nevertheless virtual ignoramuses lacking even a fraction of the knowledge that their degrees are supposed to endow them with."