Ousted head of HE commission slams removal of autonomy

The government in Pakistan is facing widespread criticism over abruptly ending the autonomy of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the higher education financing and regulatory authority, by amending a 2002 law by presidential order, bypassing parliament.

The new order, which was not tabled before parliament, was signed into law by President Arif Alvi on 8 April, while taking effect from 26 March, ending the autonomy of the HEC by placing it under the federal education ministry.

Pakistan’s constitution provides for emergency law-making through a presidential order when parliament is not in session, but academics, civil society organisations and political leaders question why this emergency provision was applied to the HEC and have strongly condemned and protested the promulgation of the presidential order termed “HEC Amendment Ordinance 2021” that strips the HEC of its administrative and financial powers.

Mujahid Kamran, former vice-chancellor of Lahore’s University of the Punjab, told University World News: “Bringing the HEC under a federal ministry would have not been a question of concern had it been done after broad-based academic consultations and parliamentary debate. It is known to all that universities grew in Pakistan since 2002 under an autonomous HEC and now there is fear in academic circles that this process of sustained growth of higher education might be rolled back.”

The new order reduced the term of the office of the HEC chairman from four years to two years and empowered the education ministry to make important HEC appointments and govern it financially.

But the ordinance is seen as clear political intrusion by the government. The tussle between the autonomous HEC and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has been brewing for a few months as funds were not being released to the HEC. HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri was forcibly removed from office on 26 March.

Banuri was appointed in May 2018 by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for a four-year term which was due to end in May 2022.

Ousted HEC chair says he faced threats

Banuri said in an interview in Urdu aired by Pakistan’s Geo News television on 8 April: “Prior to my removal I was repeatedly asked by the PM’s office to resign, which I refused.”

Banuri said he was also threatened with severe consequences if he did not resign, and he accused unnamed persons in the office of the prime minister of political intrusion in the affairs of the universities and the HEC.

“People with vested interests in the Office of the Prime Minister wanted control over the assets of the universities, especially university lands. I refused to bow down to political pressure and so I was forcibly removed from office despite my incomplete term,” said Banuri, who is challenging his removal in the courts.

Banuri said although he was not opposed to public-private university partnerships in principle, he claimed he was victimised for not bowing to political pressures as he wanted transparency in universities’ financial affairs.

He also said he feared that with corruption the university lands would no longer be in university hands, calling for a monitoring system over the process and some restrictions and safeguards. However, he maintained, the interests of people in the prime minister’s office were against this.

He added that Prime Minister Khan himself asked him to make use of university land assets through collaborations with the private sector.

‘Patronage-based system’

Banuri said he had attempted to reform HEC financing to universities and dismantle what he called a “patronage-based system” under the HEC’s previous chair, which he claimed favoured certain universities. He said he sought to replace it with a performance-based system, as well as to reform some policies he said were corrupt, and change some practices which he said suffered from inadequate accountability.

In a commentary article published in Pakistan’s The News on 13 April, Banuri wrote: “Take the case of the foreign faculty hiring programme. Launched with much fanfare, its ostensible purpose was to offer high salaries (US$60,000 per year or more) to attract foreign scholars to Pakistani universities. In practice, it suffered from serious flaws of conflict of interest and unintended policy consequences. By some accounts, it was a vehicle for patronage and corruption.

“Yet, the HEC has never tried to do an accounting or assessment of whether the programme worked, what outcomes it produced, directly or indirectly by the scientists who visited or those with whom they worked,” he claimed.

“To this day, the universities are unable to say in concrete terms how they benefited from the presence of expensive (and often invisible) foreign scholars – whether they were able to make a research breakthrough, attract additional research funding, improve the quality of the syllabus, provide training to faculty members, or anything else that matters to a university’s quality or reputation.

“Bottom line: with some exceptions, it was a programme designed to favour preferred individuals; it involved a waste of public money, and had little to no quantifiable impact,” he claimed, adding: “The best course is to let the universities do their own hiring.”

Minister refutes claims

Shafqat Mahmood, minister of federal education and professional training, contradicted the claims of government political intrusion in the HEC and universities.

“Public-private partnerships by universities is a lasting solution for generating financial resources for the universities. Our government has amended HEC law to improve the higher education sector,” he told University World News.

However, others criticised the way the HEC’s wings were clipped. Ahsan Iqbal, secretary general of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N, told University World News that “ending HEC autonomy through a presidential ordinance instead of through an act of parliament shows the ill intention of the government as it was not possible through parliament, where it would have been debated, opposed and rejected”.

Ahsan said Khan’s PTI government wanted to destroy the country’s entire higher education system, as it first cut the budget of public sector universities, making them financially weak and vulnerable and then started dictating to universities to give their lands to the private sector to cope with the financial crisis the government itself created. But they (people in the government), in fact, want to plunder the resources of the universities, he said.

Shafqat denied any intentional and HEC-specific budget cut. He told University World News: “The HEC was not specifically targeted for a budget cut in 2019 and 2020, but government spending for all sectors was cut due to financial constraints in 2019 and due to coronavirus-related economic pressures in 2020.”

He alleged that Banuri was removed on complaints of mismanagement and irregularities in the HEC which are being investigated by the relevant authorities. Banuri denies the allegations describing them as “pressure tactics”.