PAKISTAN: Higher Education Commission in trouble

Academics are divided over government moves to break up Pakistan's Higher Education Commission, ostensibly to give it representation in parliament by distributing its core functions among ministries. Some academics want a dedicated ministry of higher education, while others see the HEC's demise as detrimental to the sector.

According to government sources, it has been decided to dismantle the HEC and transfer its functions to ministries, such as science and technology, so that budgetary and other higher education matters go through proper parliamentary channels for approval.

But lecturers and vice-chancellors doubt the government's intentions. And while some want higher education to have its own ministry, many others say that abolishing the organisation would undo its many achievements as an independent institution.

The government's intensions regarding the commission have not been officially announced, but have been intentionally leaked to gauge the response of the public and academia.

"If the government is serious about giving the HEC representation in the federal cabinet and in parliament, it should create a ministry of higher education instead of tearing the HEC into parts and distributing its functions to irrelevant ministries," Professor Ikram-ul-Haq, former vice-chancellor of Lahore's Government College University, told University World News.

A higher education ministry should be created to end the "rolling stone status of the HEC", said Haq, who now heads the Industrial Biotechnology Institute at the university.

"There should be some competent person, preferably a scientist, appointed as minister if government creates a new ministry of higher education and research. That person should have higher education management experience and knowledge of world higher education models.

"It is just not creating a new ministry that would save higher education; it is instead the political will to do so," he argued.

The director-general of Karachi University's Institute of Genetic Engineering, Abid Azhar, told University World News: "There could be one federal ministry of higher education and scientific research as we see elsewhere in the world."

HEC Chairman Javaid Laghari, however, disagreed. He told University World News that that the commission, as an autonomous organisation with a chair who has the status of a federal minister, "as it is currently is more effective than a higher education ministry".

"The HEC has no bureaucracy and it can recruit professionals for all its positions without any political intervention," Laghari argued.

"A higher education ministry would be headed by a politician who would be a non-expert, plus it would have bureaucratic tiers causing delays and red-tape. Our model is one of the best systems for higher education."

Government sources disclosed in private that most of the HEC's functions are likely to be assigned to the ministry of national regulations and the ministry of food security and research, created by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on 26 October.

Academics said that any attempt to disband the commission without proper legislation to replace HEC Ordinance-2002, would be tantamount to contempt of court as Pakistan's supreme court on 12 April ordered the government to abstain from devolving the HEC until it created a new law to replace the ordinance, which grants the commission autonomous status.

They said the government was also backtracking from an earlier commitment, when it announced that the HEC's status would not be changed until 2014, when a new formula for resources distribution among the federal and provincial governments is due to be agreed.

Vice-chancellor of Faisalabad's University of Agriculture, Professor Iqrar Khan, told University World News: "I think it is only a matter of giving proper recognition to the HEC. Combining science and technology and higher education under one ministry, say for instance a ministry of higher education and scientific research, would be better than the present state of neglect.

"But we do not want to have the HEC attached as a department to a ministry as that would jeopardise its autonomous status. We do not want the HEC to fall in the hands of bureaucracy and politicians."

Khan said the HEC had been professional and efficient, "which is causing indigestion in the stomachs of ministries and their bosses. The government is punishing the HEC and universities for being independent."

In March this year the government issued a notification that it would devolve the HEC to provinces under a constitutional amendment (18th amendment) aimed at enhancing provincial autonomy. But that prompted an outcry from academia and civil society, and the court ruled against it.

Cabinet sources, who did not want to be named, told University World News: "This time the word devolution will not be used and through a new law the HEC's functions shall be handed over to different ministries". The source said the government was also going to create a new commission for higher education standards.

Experts pointed out that if the government introduced a new law, it could do anything it liked with the Higher Education Commission.