Universities fear change in HEC law undermines autonomy

Universities and academics have strongly criticised the cabinet’s approval last week of an amendment in the law governing Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) that makes the prime minister the controlling authority, giving him the power to dismiss the chairperson of the higher education regulatory body at any time.

It is one of a number of changes termed as ‘perilous’ for the country’s higher education system.

Through the amendment, the powers of the HEC chairperson will be reduced, downgrading his status from being equal to a federal minister at present, to just the head of the organisation.

It would also be a step towards undermining provincial autonomy if the HEC has the power to regulate universities in the provinces.

Academics and other regional political parties believe the amendment, bringing the HEC under the federal government’s direct control, will reduce the role of provincial governments and provincial higher education departments in directing regional universities on research and development in accordance with regional needs.

The Association of Private Sector Universities of Pakistan (APSUP) on 7 July in a letter to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif urged him to withdraw the 3 July amendment citing potential threats to institutional autonomy.

The letter, written by the association’s chairman Chaudhary Abdul Rehman on behalf of all private sector universities in the country, stated: “The proposed amendments could have far-reaching consequences for the quality and growth of higher education in Pakistan.”

He maintained it also had the potential to undermine HEC autonomy and would open the way for possible ‘external’ control and influence – a reference to fears that with the prime minister as the supreme authority, ministers and politicians of the ruling political party will have direct influence over the HEC.

“This shift may limit the autonomy of universities and hamper their ability to cater to regional needs and aspirations effectively,” Rehman wrote.

“There is a need to safeguard the autonomy and independence of universities for the advancement of academic excellence, research, and innovation in Pakistan.”

However, the government maintains the 2023 amendments to the HEC Ordinance of 2002 are ‘in good faith’ and intended to ‘empower’ the HEC.

“The government first led the process of creating a provincial higher education commission after the passage of 18th constitutional amendment that devolved the subject of education to the provinces in April 2010, and encouraged provincialisation of the higher education sector.

“But now this amendment making the federal HEC the sole standard-setting body would undermine provincial (higher education) autonomy,” Muhammad Ashraf, rector of the University of Lahore told University World News.

“How will universities in the provinces cater to regional needs when the standard would be set by the central authority?” Ashraf added.

“On one hand, the government says it is strengthening the federal HEC and on the other hand it has cut the powers of the chairperson by making his slot vulnerable to dismissal, reduced the number of members of the board, which is the governing council, and took back the authority of appointing of an executive director.

“These steps are self-contradictory and indicate that there will also be a major funding cut for universities in the future,” he said.

However, Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Rana Tanveer Hussain, told University World News: “the recent amendments in the HEC law are for (the public) good and are designed to strengthen the HEC as an institution, empowering it to regulate universities in the provinces as well, so that a uniform standard of higher education could be ensured in the country.”

Opposed by the academic community

Professor Dr Sumaira Rehman, rector of Lahore’s Superior University told University World News: “The prime minister having supreme authority over the HEC means that the ruling political party and members of the federal cabinet will have direct influence over this institution which had been autonomous since its creation in 2002.

“When the (HEC) chairperson will have no job security, with a fear of being thrown out at any time by the prime minister, how will the HEC chair resist political interference? This is going to be very perilous for the higher education system of the country,” she said.

The amendment also gives the prime minister the power to appoint the HEC executive director, the second most powerful position in the commission. According to the unamended HEC law, this position was filled through open competition and a board interview.

The number of HEC board members has also been reduced, which has been criticised by academics who said the change will weaken efficient governance of the commission.

The Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) has also opposed the approval of the HEC amendment bill by the cabinet. In a media statement the association, representing all university teachers, condemned the government’s action.

“The changes in HEC law will prove detrimental to universities in the provinces and will also weaken the HEC as an independent body,” it said.

Lack of consultation

HEC Chairman Mukhtar Ahmed told University World News: “Amending laws is the prerogative of the government. But while changing the HEC law, broad-based consultation was not made with relevant stakeholders, involving universities and teachers.”

He added: “There is still time to engage with the leadership of universities, provincial representatives and faculty members before the law gets passed by parliament.”

Although Prime Minister Sharif constituted a high-level panel in April this year to reach a consensus on the HEC law amendment, the FAPUASA statement said university teachers were not consulted on this important legislation.

“Prior to any decision-making, the provinces and stakeholders should have been consulted and invited to participate in constitutional forums,” it said.

Categorically rejecting the amendments in HEC law and advising the prime minister to not follow the footprints of previous governments, the Awami National Party (ANP), which is a member of the ruling coalition, demanded the government withdraw the proposed legislation.

ANP’s provincial president Aimal Wali Khan said on 7 July that the changes in HEC law were equal to ending provincial autonomy in the higher education sector that was granted through the 18th constitutional amendment. He said: “We will not tolerate this, it must be reversed, or we will consider ending our coalition alliance with the government.”

It is still unclear when the amendment, hastily approved by the cabinet, will be discussed in parliament. However, with the current government’s term about to complete on 13 August, the amendment could be rolled back due to mounting pressure, or any legislation would be left to the next government to steer through parliament.

The proposed amendment has the backing of two main coalition political parties: the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) who share views on reducing the status of HEC, although PML-N had been opposing such moves in the past.

Several attempts were made in previous years, most recently in 2021, to amend the HEC law in Pakistan which met severe resistance by academics, civil society and political parties that led to the independent status of this higher education regulatory body being retained.

Resistance is likely to continue if the cabinet-approved legislation is tabled in parliament, academics said.