PAKISTAN: Higher education devolution undermines HEC

A constitutional amendment to devolve responsibility for Pakistan's higher education to the provinces has worried the academic community and puts in doubt the future of the Higher Education Commission, which handles a large amount of foreign aid intended for higher education and research.

The committee of vice-chancellors of Pakistani universities has strongly opposed handing responsibility for higher education to the provinces.

Pakistan's parliament enacted an amendment in April 2010 giving increased autonomy to the provinces, including for education, as part of a move to cancel constitutional amendments made by General Pervez Musharraf who had centralised many government sectors.

This is now being implemented by a commission chaired by senator Raza Rabbani, despite opposition from vice-chancellors who have demanded that the federal government halt the process.

Mujahid Kamran, Vice-chancellor of the University of Punjab, told University World News devolution would "bring down higher education standards and the pace of progress would be slowed because universities would lose independence, face shortage of resources and get involved in bureaucratic issues".

The provinces have been responsible for college education while universities have fallen under the federal ambit, governed by the autonomous Higher Education Commission (HEC).

Informed sources believe the HEC could remain intact, as the government needs a federal body to coordinate international agreements in education and to regulate study abroad procedures. Foreign aid to higher education, such as from the USAid programme, is administered by the commission and is vital to the sector.

But they see a cut in HEC powers.

HEC Executive Director Sohail Naqvi insisted: "The HEC is not being devolved to the provinces, nor are any functions of the HEC being taken away." But he was unable to support this with official statements from the Law Ministry or from the implementation commission.

However, the constitution continues to allow for "planning and coordination of scientific and technological research and standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions...the implementing of treaties and agreements [with foreign government or agencies] including educational and cultural pacts and agreements and education abroad" to be carried out at the federal level.

Atta-ur-Rahman, HEC chairman from 2002 to 2008, who is widely credited for reforming the sector, said handing responsibility to the provinces would undo the achievements of recent years, which saw a huge expansion in the university sector, provided for with federal funds.

He recommended a new constitutional amendment to reverse the amendment handing power to the provinces.

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