PAKISTAN: Rector appointments plagued by politics

The appointment of university leaders in Pakistan has become highly politicised. Many positions are being left unfilled for long periods, stalled by tugs-of-war between political parties holding sway at federal level and opposing parties in power at the provincial level.

In the country's largest province, Punjab, impartial university leaders see this trend as damaging and are demanding a move towards merit-based appointments of vice-chancellors.

The latest tussle occurred over the appointment of a vice-chancellor for Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan city.

Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province and a member of Pakistan's Muslim League which is in opposition in central government, made a recommendation but the federally-appointed provincial governor Latif Khosa, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), opposed it.

Khosa insisted that it was his prerogative to appoint vice-chancellors, as ex-officio chancellor of the province's universities. Multan city also falls within the electoral constituency of Pakistan's prime minister, a PPP member.

The matter reached the supreme court which on 7 October declared the province's chief minister the competent authority, although in consultation with the governor. The court asked the governor not to reject the provincial chief's decision without a "very valid reason".

There was also a political tussle between the Punjab chief minister and governor over the appointment of the vice-chancellor of Islamia University in Bahawalpur. Similar problems have arisen in Sindh province.

Before the court's ruling, appointment proposals went back and forth with objections from the governor and counter arguments by the chief minister, causing delays in appointing university leaders.

In July the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association staged a protest in the Punjab capital Lahore, demanding that vacant vice-chancellorships for four universities be filled.

The court's ruling could also mean that many previously disputed vice-chancellor appointments could now be reversed by the chief minister.

After the supreme court decision, the governor last week appointed the vice-chancellor of the University of Sargodha, despite reservations of the chief minister. The governor still believes that appointment of vice-chancellors is his prerogative, sources said.

"The appointment of vice-chancellors should be purely be on merit through constituting a vice-chancellor selection committee comprising all academics," Riaz-ul-Haq, rector of the University of Faisalabad, told University World News.

Academics believe politically appointed vice-chancellors have no option but to surrender to the demands and pressures of their appointing authority.

"The chancellor [governor] has failed universities by appointing unqualified individuals who are willing to do whatever he suggests, like the recent case of conferment of an honorary degree on a minister," Riaz Ahmed, a professor of chemistry at Karachi University, said during a recent meeting. He was referring to an honorary doctorate conferred on Interior Minister Abdul Rehman Malik.

Higher Education Commission (HEC) sources said it had no role in appointing of vice-chancellors, except for providing guidance at the federal level for setting up the search committees that recommend three names to the chancellor.

"The recent row between the governor and chief minister of Punjab has nothing to do with the prescribed methods of vice-chancellors' appointments," HEC Executive Director Sohail Naqvi told University World News.

"The controversy was over selection of one person from the three best candidates suggested by the selection committees in each case. After the proposal of the selection committee, the matter goes to the government in the province where HEC has no role." Naqvi explained.

And the issue of university leadership appointments is not only a civilian political imbroglio. There has been disquiet over top appoints in higher education institutions run by the military.

Former president General Pervez Musharraf elevated the army-run National Institution of Modern Languages to become the National University of Modern Languages (NUML) when he was also wearing the hat of chief of army staff, and he became chair of its governing board.

The university drew funds from the civilian budget allocated to the HEC but its rector was always a serving or retired senior army officer. Three years after Musharraf quit power, there remained ambiguity over who should appoint the rector - Pakistan's president or army chief - and it continued to be funded from the civilian budget despite criticism over this practice.

Last Monday the military's supremacy over the university was legally established when the national assembly passed the National University of Modern Languages (Amendment) Bill (2011). It makes the army chief of staff chair of the governing board and the person responsible for appointing a senior serving or retired army officer as rector "on recommendation of the board".

Academics termed this development a political compromise.