Supreme Court orders removal of VCs as nepotism rises

The Supreme Court of Pakistan last week ordered the removal of a number of university vice-chancellors because they were appointed in violation of the merit-based system.

In stern remarks on 22 April over the appointment of vice-chancellors in Punjab province, Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Mian Saqib Nisar, said the appointments were not the most senior professors but had close links with government circles.

“The Supreme Court cannot tolerate any appointment without transparency as the state of education in the province is in complete disarray,” Nisar said. The court observed that a "quack" was appointed as vice-chancellor of the University of the Punjab.

Muhammad Zakria Zakir, vice-chancellor of Lahore's University of the Punjab; Uzma Qureshi, vice-chancellor of Lahore College for Women University; and the vice-chancellors of Rawalpindi Medical University, Fatima Jinnah Medical University and Faisalabad Medical University were summoned at the hearing of the suo moto case of illegal appointments held at Lahore Registry of the Supreme Court.

The court on 22 April ordered the vice-chancellors to leave their posts with immediate effect. Four of the vice-chancellors immediately resigned but Qureshi refused to step down from her post, defending her appointment as being purely on merit. The court then ordered her suspension.

In response to the chief justice’s query on the role of the interior minister in her appointment, Qureshi repeatedly said that “the interior minister had no role in my appointment” and claimed that “attempts have been made to malign me”. However, she acknowledged that Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal had been a student of her father many years back.

The court directed the universities to appoint their most senior professor at the university as acting vice-chancellor until the posts are filled on merit with candidates identified through newly constituted search committees, the court ruled.

The court bench also resolved to curb merit-violations at universities in other provinces.

Rising political influence

Political influence on appointments has reportedly risen after a constitutional amendment enacted in 2010 reduced the influence of the federal Higher Education Commission and devolved higher education to the provinces, which created their own provincial higher education commissions.

Academic bodies have for years been voicing concerns about nepotism and political favouritism by provincial governments in appointing university heads and filling other top university slots.

When the Punjab government decided to change the criteria for appointing vice-chancellors by reducing the number of publications required and abolishing the PhD requirement, there was strong resistance from academic staff of the universities who said the change in criteria promoted nepotism. This led to the shelving of the new criteria.

But in the end academic groups had to resort to the courts. In some cases the courts moved by issuing notices themselves (the suo moto) based on media reports.

Kaleem Ullah Barech, a professor at Quetta's University of Balochistan and former president of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA), told University World News: "The practice of appointing university heads against the laid-down criteria is not new since the devolution of education to the provinces, which gave more powers to the provincial governments.”

Barech said the purpose of the 18th amendment was to promote autonomy but politicians used it to favour those near to them. “We had been voicing our concerns against non-merit based appointments of vice-chancellors in public sector universities," he said.

In June 2016, FAPUASA strongly resisted the appointment of two vice-chancellors who were not engineers for two engineering universities in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In April 2017, a coalition of university teachers known as the Senior Academic Community for Quality Higher Education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa called on the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to take notice of illegal appointments of vice-chancellors of public sector universities in the province and declare them “null and void”, alleging that “nepotism and political pressure overshadowed the procedure", the English-language daily The News reported.

In February this year the Peshawar High Court declared the appointment of Habib Ahmad as vice-chancellor of Islamia College University in Peshawar as illegal. The verdict was passed on a petition by Yaseen Iqbal, a professor at the university, who contended the appointment was in violation of the criteria.

Last month the Peshawar High Court declared the appointment of Arshad Javed, vice-chancellor of Khyber Medical University, to be illegal and “in violation of merit”.

‘Brazen violation’

In February 2016, academic staff from several universities in Sindh province held a convention in Karachi and criticised the provincial government for "brazen violation of merit and rules". Dr Inayat Magsi from Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University of Larkana said at the convention: "Government malpractices at universities are a grave injustice, ruining institutions."

Also at the convention, Dr Arfana Mallah, a professor at the University of Sindh, with reference to the 2010 constitutional amendment said: "Teachers had demanded devolution of education and not devaluation of education.”

Early this year, a working group formed to push for reforms in higher education voiced the same concerns, while Pakistan Social Services Partnership, a network of 85 civil society organisations, wrote to the country’s president, prime minister and chief ministers of all provinces to take measures to ensure transparency and observance of merit in vice-chancellor appointments.

Academics are hoping the recent court intervention will minimise the role of provincial government heads in top university appointments. However, Punjab government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan told University World News: "The chief minister does not head the search committees and he only appoints a person recommended by the committee as the vice-chancellor."