Tension as Supreme Court opposes HEC appointment

Pakistan’s prime minister’s controversial appointment of a new head of the universities regulatory body, the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, was declared illegal by the country’s Supreme Court last month on the grounds that the government has no right to interfere in the affairs of the autonomous body.

But the decision could herald a new period of heightened tensions in already strained relations between the HEC and the government in the coming year, academics predict.

In late November, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered the appointment of Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, a secretary in the Ministry of Education, as the new HEC executive director, rejecting a bid by the HEC’s 18-member governing body in August to extend the current HEC Executive Director Sohail Naqvi’s term in office.

Speaking on 31 December to rectors and vice-chancellors of over 70 public universities, HEC Chair Javaid Laghari said the court’s decision meant the autonomy of the HEC had been preserved.

But what appears to be a bureaucratic tussle over preferred candidates could have wider implications.

The executive director heads the HEC secretariat and is the principal accounting officer – having a crucial say over use of HEC funds, which amount to over US$0.5 billion, including a large amount of foreign aid from agencies such as USAID and the World Bank, for higher education and research.

Attempt to ‘usurp autonomy’

The prime minister’s move was widely condemned by academics as a blatant attempt to usurp HEC autonomy. Pakistani academics, headed by former HEC chair Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also a former federal minister of science and technology, took the issue to the Supreme Court.

During a 5 December media briefing in Islamabad, Rahman declared the government’s action a violation of HEC rules and regulations. The PM has power only to appoint the HEC chairman “who must be an internationally eminent scholar”, Rahman said, but cannot remove the chairman or appoint other HEC officers, such as the executive director.

This level of autonomy was deliberately incorporated in the law when the HEC was set up in 2002, “as it was visualised that nepotism, cronyism and corruption would creep into this organisation if the government was allowed to meddle in its functioning”, Rahman said.

Rahman, who in 2008 had been forced to resign as founding chair of the HEC, additionally told University World News that “governing politicians want to have direct control of the HEC budget and wish to exercise power over universities’ admission and examination processes [so that] their cronies [can] have university degrees”.

“Corrupt politicians have their eyes on lands worth hundreds of billions of dollars that the universities own. They also would like to have control of the annual budget of US$0.5 billion dollars available to HEC.

"They are after the HEC for exposing the fake degrees of parliamentarians,” Rahman claimed in remarks to University World News.

The HEC has already exposed over 50 parliamentarians for having fake or suspect degrees. The verification of these degrees became a controversial issue in recent years with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) claiming itself to be the centrally authorised agency for verification, seeing the HEC merely as a channel between ECP and the universities.

Tensions could rise

Rahman, who is now the chair of Pakistan’s Academy of Sciences, hailed the court decision but feared it could exacerbate already tense relations between the HEC and government. In recent years the government has slashed the HEC budget and cut back its powers.

In what some see as the increased politicisation of the HEC, a number of academics, including HEC’s own employees, had also opposed the extension of Naqvi’s term – the third four-year extension of his term in office – seeing it as a bid by HECs top bureaucracy to “grab all powers”.

The apex court noted this concern. It termed the third extension to Sohail Naqvi as illegal and directed the HEC to oust both controversial appointees and adopt a standard procedure for appointing a new executive director, within 30 days of the court verdict.

Following the court’s ruling, the HEC appointed Syed Imtiaz Hussain Gilani, vice-chancellor of the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar, and the head of the All Pakistan Vice-chancellors Committee, as interim executive director, with a permanent executive director to be appointed by 19 January.

Laghari told a meeting of vice-chancellors on 31 December that the Supreme Court decision would be implemented in letter and spirit.