Calls grow for parliamentary restoration of HEC autonomy

A decision by the Pakistan government to revoke the autonomy of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is being met with increasing resistance from politicians, academics and civil society. Activists and Pakistan’s main opposition political parties teamed up against the presidential ordinance on 8 April, which placed the higher education regulatory body under the federal education ministry, calling for parliamentary scrutiny of the decision.

HEC Chairperson Tariq Banuri was also removed in the middle of his four-year term.

More than 150 academics, politicians and civil society representatives wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan on 26 April calling on him to withdraw the ordinance and restore HEC autonomy.

The letter, with more than 1,900 signatories, states: “We want to communicate to you the grave disappointment that this action has caused among the academic community and civil society, and urge you to rescind the Higher Education Commission (Amendment) Ordinance 2021 as well as the notification of the removal of the HEC chairman.”

They appealed to the prime minister to restore funding for the HEC “to the levels needed to bring about the requisite improvements in the quality of education and research in the country”.

The letter states that downgrading the status of the HEC from an independent entity to a subordinate entity of the federal government will have implications for inter-provincial relations as being against the spirit of the 18th constitutional amendment that made the HEC representative of all provinces rather than a body under the federal education ministry.

The letter added that “if the federal government felt that a decision of such magnitude was warranted, it ought to have tabled the motion, along with the justification and the supportive evidence, in the parliament so that it could be subjected to due scrutiny and proper public debate. Adopting the subterfuge of an ordinance is hardly appropriate.”

Separately, a group of academics started an online petition calling for action “over the dire state of affairs and recent events related to higher education in Pakistan” and stating that “higher education is in imminent danger”.

With 2,850 signatories, and the number of signatories increasing daily, academics called upon the prime minister to “reverse these recent unjustifiable decisions that wreak havoc on the future of higher education in Pakistan”.

The petition states: “There has been a violation of constitutional due process of law by the Government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI); violation of autonomy of a regulatory authority which directly results in a violation of the right to education as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we believe that Pakistan urgently and immediately needs our attention.”

Tahir Zaman from Pakistan’s city of Rawalpindi said he signed and supported the petition “because I stand against intellectual dishonesty, record tampering, data manipulation, fake projects, fake papers, fake academic conferences, fake research journals, and fake education”.

Call for parliamentary scrutiny

Opposition parties are also calling for parliamentary scrutiny and due parliamentary process.

Ahsan Iqbal, secretary general of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and a member of the National Assembly, vowed to support a resolution tabled in the Senate by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) calling for the restoration of HEC autonomy.

“We will undoubtedly vote for the disapproval of the HEC (Amendment) Ordinance. Being a regulator, the HEC can’t be made subordinate to the education ministry. It has to work independently. What has been done to the HEC will play havoc with higher education and the economy,” Ahsan told the English-language newspaper The News on 25 April.

Senator Sherry Rehman, vice-president and parliamentary leader of the PPP, tabled the resolution in the Pakistan Senate on 23 April condemning the “extra-parliamentary way of clipping the HEC’s wings” and called for the presidential order to be revoked and for the ousted HEC chairman to be restored.

“The government is bypassing parliament through promulgating ordinances, and we will not compromise on the autonomy of the HEC,” she told the media after submitting the resolution in the Senate Secretariat, saying the government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by Prime Minister Imran Khan was bent upon destroying every institution in the country, with the HEC being the latest victim.

Rehman, a former information minister, who was also Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2011 to 2013, told University World News: “We strongly condemn the ordinance that has reduced the HEC from an autonomous institution into a subordinate body of the education ministry. This presidential order should either be withdrawn or presented before the parliament for debate and voting.”

She said the HEC was first subjected to financial pressure through massive funding cuts and is now being punished for raising its voice against unjustified budgetary reductions.

Article 89 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that “the president has power to promulgate ordinances only if the senate or national assembly is not in session and the president is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action”.

But the same article clarifies that ordinances must be laid before either house of parliament, to be extended or passed as law by both houses of parliament. Failure to do so will result in their lapse after 120 days unless it is re-promulgated.

Rehman said that to avoid parliamentary oversight and criticism by opposition lawmakers, the government might rely upon presidential extensions or re-promulgations of this controversial ordinance.

The government is using delaying tactics by not summoning the session of the National Assembly or the Senate, she said, adding: “Let me make it clear to the government that the decision about the HEC’s autonomy cannot be taken solely by the ruling party.”

Higher education budget cuts

A professor at the University of Sargodha who requested not to be named for fear of government reprisal told University World News: “The HEC and its ousted chair Tariq Banuri are being punished for speaking against the PTI government’s anti-education policies. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has presented two annual budgets since it came into power in 2018 and in both of the budgets massive funding cuts were imposed on the HEC and universities were left begging to even pay salaries.”

In its maiden budget in June 2019, the PTI government imposed a massive funding cut of 37% on the higher education sector and reduced the HEC development budget to PKR29 billion (US$189 million) compared with the budget of PKR46 billion allocated in July 2018 by the outgoing government of the Pakistan Muslim League.

Similarly, massive cuts were imposed in the 2020 budget, which was opposed by vice-chancellors and university academic staff. However, the government insisted the cuts were due to economic pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Karachi-based newspaper Business Recorder, Banuri had said during a press conference in October 2019: “Prime Minister Imran Khan should do something practical to fulfil his promises. Pakistan is providing the lowest level of funding to the higher education sector. The HEC is in contact with the government to seek a reversal of the shortsighted policy.”

However, Adil Najam, former vice-chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences and current dean of the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University in the United States, told University World News it was not the budget or higher education funding that led the government to ‘punish’ the HEC and oust its chairperson.

“It was not because he [Banuri] questioned the funding cuts but because he questioned the way government wanted funds to be distributed, and when he refused to dole out money without accountability and performance checks to certain institutions having strong connections within the federal cabinet, he was shown the door and earlier funds were cut to create a crisis to justify the ouster of Tariq Banuri.”

Earlier, on 8 April, the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) observed a ‘black day’ around the country in protest against the ending of the HEC’s autonomy.

On 25 April the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), at a press conference in Hyderabad city in Sindh province, demanded that the government immediately withdraw the ordinance. The PMA said: “At the time of the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment, it was decided that the HEC would not work under any ministry.”

It added that funding would now be affected by political considerations and “the education sector would suffer further”, according to Karachi-based Dawn newspaper.