PAKISTAN: Devolution jeopardises university research

The future of international research collaborations and other research initiatives are in doubt as a result of the Pakistan government's attempts to dismantle the federal-level Higher Education Commission and devolve responsibility to provinces that lack the capacity and financial resources to run these major projects, academics say.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) is being devolved to Pakistan's provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment plan, a move that has caused an outcry among academics, researchers and provincial governments themselves.

Some 980 research projects in 72 public universities in different provinces are funded by the HEC under the government's National Research Programme for Universities. Around 450 million rupees (US$5.3 million) is distributed annually. The HEC is also spending Rs800 million a year on promoting research in Pakistan.

"No feasibility study was conducted in the provinces and it [devolution] is going to be an experiment," said Professor Rasool Bakhsh Tareen, of the botany department at the University of Balochistan, Quetta.

"During this transition period, until the time the provinces learn lessons, research will definitely suffer not only from financial point of view but also from a standards point of view."

Among other functions the HEC runs international research initiatives and partnerships with agencies such as USAID, the World Bank, the British Council and other donors.

Under the British Council's Strategic Partnerships in Research and Education (INSPIRE) initiative, 50 higher education research links between Pakistani and UK universities were set up and more are planned.

"We are adopting a wait-and-see approach," said David Martin, the British Council's Pakistan director. "HEC is an excellent partner and co-funds our INSPIRE strategic partnerships as well as other parts of the INSPIRE programme.

"If the HEC were to be devolved to the provinces, we would be looking for alternative partners. However, the resource implications of building [new] partnerships would be considerable."

The Financial Aid Development (FAD) programme, funded and administered by USAID through the HEC and aimed at making university research self-sustaining, has been halted.

Mary Bane Lackie, Chief of Party for the FAD programme, told University World News that the Academy for Education Development (a former USAID service provider) was no longer working in higher education in Pakistan as the HEC-FAD project ended on 5 April 2011.

"The end of the project was unrelated to the announcement of the dissolution of the HEC," she said. Academics, however, pointed out that 56 projects were recently selected for funding under the programme and have now been abandoned.

Indications are that foreign donors are waiting for a clearer outcome before announcing their plans, with political wrangling continuing.

Federal ministers met on 28 April with chief ministers of five provinces that have refused to take charge of HEC-funded universities without additional federal financing. Federal ministers had insisted there would be no extra funds as provincial allocations had been agreed until 2014, before the devolution saga emerged.

As a result of the ministers' meeting, the federal government has said it will continue funding universities until the next financial allocation for the provinces is agreed in 2014. But the meeting did not clarify the future of the HEC as an institution administering funds at federal level.

A Supreme Court ruling on 12 April ordered the continuation of the HEC until a new higher education governance law is introduced by the government to replace the one that set up the HEC in 2002, to take on the commission's federal responsibilities which include education standards, quality assurance and maintaining centres of excellence.

However, with the current uncertainty over when any new legislation will be tabled and what happens in the meantime, researchers fear for the future of several programmes.

Professor Zabta Khan Shinwari, chair of the bio-informatics department at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, told University World News: "The government's assurance to continue funding universities for next three years does not make the future of research safe and secure."

Dr Shahida Hasnain, dean of Punjab University's faculty of sciences, argued: "University-level research is being jeopardised in the face of the HEC devolution. The federating units of Pakistan [the provinces] lack strong research infrastructure, have no experience - as they have been dealing with [provincial] colleges only - and have less financial capability compared with the resourceful central government."

Shinwari told University World News that the provinces might not have the technical capacity to judge competitive bids for research funding, and that different standards for the selection of research projects would emerge in each province.

"Quality standards of research and laboratories would also be different in different provinces, which will put a big question mark on research degrees having varying standards in different parts of the country," Shinwari added.

It was also unclear how international donors would coordinate with five provinces as well as with federally-administered areas of Pakistan, said Zahoor Swati, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Agriculture in Peshawar.

"What will happen to universities in autonomous areas like Azad Kashmir [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] and to those located in tribal areas where the army is fighting terrorists?" Swati asked.

"I don't think it will be easy for donors to establish many offices for supporting research in remote areas of Pakistan. They would need a body like HEC or [would have to] abandon supporting research and university development in Pakistan."

Professor Abid Azhar, co-director of the Karachi Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at the University of Karachi, pointed out: "Some [richer] provinces like Punjab and Sindh have resources but not the required research development capability. Other provinces like Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa do not have either."

He described the future of research as "grim and bleak".

Related links

PAKISTAN: University protests against HEC disbanding
PAKISTAN: Higher education devolution undermines HEC

What has devolution got to do with achievement of Quaid-e-Azam University's mathematics department? Or on the other hand what has the Higher Education Commission (HEC) got to do with the achievement?

If the HEC wants to take credit for the good things then it must accept the responsibility for the bad things happening in higher education in Pakistan.

In my opinion the HEC should neither take credit for the achievements it has nothing to do with nor it should be blamed for problems it is not responsible for.

Devolution is the key to better governance all over the world, or at least in the developed world.

If there are is international funding, whether HEC or no HEC, there will be no projects. International funding was not due to the HEC. It was due to a certain foreign policy stance. Donors provided money to the HEC because the government told them that funds for higher education should be given to the HEC. If it tells them to give them some other organisation they will be given to that organisation. The HEC has nothing to do with it.

Ijaz Khan