Ruling could spell end to retirees becoming university heads

A Supreme Court ruling has given encouragement to academic staff pushing for an end to the appointment of post-retirement age professors as university heads. They believe it could pave the way for merit-based appointments.

The appointment of retired professors as vice-chancellors at more than half of Pakistan’s publicly funded universities is opposed by academics who say it unfairly blocks opportunities for senior staff to gain top positions.

The issue was taken up by the country’s Supreme Court in the case of the reappointment of Hussain Mubashar (67) as vice-chancellor of Lahore’s University of Health Sciences (UHS).

The case attracted public attention when the Punjab High Court, petitioned by university staff, on 27 February declared Mubashar’s reappointment to be illegal and ordered the Punjab provincial government to appoint someone else as soon as possible.

The court said there were more qualified candidates, and that Mubashar had already retired from government service. It noted that some of the candidates who had applied for the job had PhDs, while Mubashar did not.

“In our considered view, the search committee did not search for a candidate but did what it was asked to do and recommended the name of a person decided by someone beforehand,” said the bench in its verdict. “Political interference in the recruitment of employees in government departments is no more a secret,” the judges said.

But the provincial chief minister of the Punjab, the state where UHS is situated, ordered his legal department to challenge the High Court’s verdict at an even higher level – Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

On 14 March, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision and ordered the instatement of Irshad Ahmad Navid as interim vice-chancellor of UHS.

The Supreme Court has also asked the Punjab government to formulate laws and standard procedures for appointing university heads and warned that if its orders were not carried out in letter and spirit, “the law would take its own course”.

Muhmammad Usman, president of the Sindh Chapter of Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Associations (FAPUASA), told University World News that since the top court has jurisdiction over the entire country, FAPUASA hopes the verdict “will pave the way for merit-based appointments at universities in other Pakistani provinces as well”.

Universities are set up under their own charter and their own rules for top appointments. As a result, currently there are no uniform standards across the country for the appointment of vice-chancellors and university heads of department.

However, in the case of UHS, the university’s own ordinance said a vice-chancellor cannot remain in post for more than one four-year term. Mubashar was first appointed vice-chancellor at the university in April 2003.

During the appeal hearing in mid-March the Supreme Court was informed by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) lawyer, Amjad Bokhari, that of 72 government-funded universities, 34 had professors past the age of retirement as vice-chancellors, many of them reappointed after the completion of their term in office. The official retirement age for a university professor is 60.

Usman said: “The Supreme Court’s order to the Punjab government to formulate standard procedures and rules for the appointment of vice-chancellors should have a direct effect in other provinces as well, where the practice of appointing retired people as university heads is going on unabated despite our protests.”

“Out of 12 government-sector universities in Sindh, 11 are headed by retired professors and some of them are aged 75 to 89, and many have secured three extensions in service as vice-chancellors because of political influence,” Usman said.

Saeed Akhtar, professor at the Institute of Education and Research at Lahore’s Punjab University, told University World News: “The culture of extension in service should end as it is damaging academic staff morale, academic standards and many young lecturers are leaving the country believing they will never get an opportunity to (achieve) high-level university posts.”

“Universities should be free from the clutches of politicians who want their men at top positions,” Akhtar said.

Academics are demanding the amendment of all university laws or the introduction of a new law, with recommendations from the HEC, to govern universities according to a uniform standard across the country.

HEC chairman Javaid Laghari told University World News: “HEC does not appoint vice-chancellors directly but gives guiding principles to the appointing authorities that they should follow, and encourages taking young people in leadership roles.”