Academics oppose bills aimed at undermining HE regulator

Two bills targeting the authority of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) – one proposed privately and one originating within government – have been rejected by the country’s academics who perceive them as attacks on the independence of the educational regulator and a threat to university autonomy.

After backlash from academics, Pakistan’s Education Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain announced that a new bill, proposing to change the universities’ regulatory body, tabled as a private bill this month, is not “government-backed” and that a government-proposed amendment bill was undergoing a process of consultation.

The new bill tabled in April in the National Assembly as a private bill would curtail the autonomy of universities by giving the HEC powers to appoint and remove vice-chancellors, taking this mandate away from university governing councils and provincial authorities.

Currently, the chief minister of the province appoints vice-chancellors after recommendations from university governing councils and provincial commissions.

The private bill, brought by Zulfiqar Ali Bhatti, Samina Matloob and Zahra Wadood Fatemi, all belonging to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), was strongly resisted last week by academics who argued the proposed changes to the HEC Ordinance would severely undermine university autonomy.

But the federal minister told The News, a local English language newspaper, “To improve the ordinance of the HEC, we are amending it ourselves, on which the HEC chairman and other stakeholders are being consulted.”

While the federal minister disowned the privately-placed bill, the government continues work on legislation to clip the wings of the HEC through another amendment bill floated by the government late last year but put on hold due to the political, constitutional, and economic crisis in the country, and still not tabled in the assembly.

Opposition to the bills

Voices opposing the government bill were raised in several meetings of the committee of vice-chancellors and of academic staff associations, and by independent educationists.

The Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) has demanded the private bill be scrapped and has expressed reservations against the earlier government-proposed bill which would reduce the HEC’s autonomy by bringing some of its independent functions under the federal ministry of education.

Mohammad Azhar Naeem, president of FAPUASA for Punjab province, told University World News, “We strongly oppose both the proposed bills – from independent members of the National Assembly and from the treasury benches (government members of the assembly), as one (bill) aims to empower the HEC to such an extent that autonomy and independence of universities would be usurped, while the other bill by the government would make the HEC a tool of the federal government, usurping provincial autonomy that the 18th constitutional amendment granted to the federating units.”

After devolution of education to the provinces enacted in April 2010, the provinces were delegated responsibility for education through the constitutional amendment, known as 18th Amendment, with the federal HEC setting standards for all.

Several governments in the past have attempted to amend the HEC law, but strong resistance has always prevented it. The ousted government of Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party also attempted this in April 2021 but failed, as did previous attempts by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party government in 2011.

Analysts said the private bill was prompted by an incident in September 2022 when Khan was invited to make a public speech at the campus of Lahore’s Government College University (GCU) after he was ousted as prime minister. Critics were unhappy with what they perceived as the use of the campus for political campaigning against the government.

Some government members of the National Assembly sought action against GCU’s vice-chancellor through the HEC, but as the rules did not allow it, analysts believe the private bill was aimed at giving such powers to the federal HEC, operating under the federal government.

‘Clearly ill-intentioned’

Atta-ur-Rahman, a former HEC chair and ex-science minister, told University World News “both bills, aspiring to play with the HEC’s mandate and governance, are clearly ill-intentioned and should be withdrawn.

“Any imbalance that the proposed bills suggest in the functions of the HEC would disturb the entire higher education system of the country, as the proposed legislation aims to reduce the universities into subordinate bodies of the bureaucracy,” he said.

Atta added the proposed amendments, if implemented, would render syndicates (management councils) of the universities powerless as governance of the universities would come directly under politicians and the bureaucracy.

Former HEC executive director, Sohail Naqvi, told University World News the plans to give such powers to the HEC under the private bill violate the spirit of the constitution.

He was referring to the bill’s proposals to empower the federal HEC to order local government and police to take action on campuses, describing these as “misadventure plans that the legislature should throw out”.

Naqvi also opposed the government bill. He maintained the HEC should be strengthened through the provision of more funds and not through powers that would cripple the country’s universities and higher education system.

On 18 April, the vice-chancellor of Lahore’s Government College University, Syed Asghar Zaidi, in an open letter to Speaker of the National Assembly Raja Pervez Asharf that also addressed Chairman of the Senate Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani and members of both houses of parliament, warned of “far-reaching and negative consequences for the higher education sector in Pakistan” if the proposed private bill goes through parliament.

Zaidi said in the letter, using the official letterhead of the university, “We believe that any changes to the HEC Ordinance must be made through a consultative and inclusive process that takes into account the opinions and concerns of all stakeholders.”

Referring to proposed amendments in the new bill, he said, “These amendments encroach upon the domains of the provinces and threaten … autonomy of the higher education institutions.”

He urged members of parliament to reconsider the amendments, terming them “blatant encroachment into charted territory [of universities] … [having] disastrous consequences for the institutions”.

Government panel

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif constituted a ministerial panel in early April to develop a consensus on amending the HEC law.

Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, federal minister for economic affairs and co-chair of the panel, told University World News, “We will invite broad consultations and make best efforts to evolve consensus for amending the HEC law through government-backed legislation. We had a preliminary meeting of the panel and the next meetings will have other stakeholders as well.”

He reiterated that the private bill proposing amendments to the HEC law was not crafted and steered by the government.

The five-member panel chaired by the federal education minister held a meeting on 11 April but without the presence of stakeholders from the higher education sector. The HEC was not invited to participate in the meeting.

The proposed government legislation, forwarded by the federal education ministry, and currently being reviewed by the ministry of law, aims to change the composition of the HEC governing board by reducing its members from 18 to 10 and bringing some of its independent functions under the federal education ministry.