Anger erupts over passage of bills for 26 new universities

Accusations of a lack of due process have been voiced in the Senate of Pakistan and by political leaders, civil society and academics following the passing in the National Assembly of a multitude of bills setting up 26 new universities, most of them private.

The bills were passed to the senate, the upper house of parliament, in the second step of the approvals process after legislation to set up the universities in various parts of the country was passed in the National Assembly in a single session on 27 July.

Academics describe the move as “ill-intentioned”. They argue that academic standards will be compromised and only businesspeople behind the new universities will benefit from the legislation.

The Senate Standing Committee on Education said on Thursday 3 August it would conduct thorough investigations into the bills before granting any approvals, signalling a stricter approach in order to maintain transparency in establishing private universities, and to ensure that the institutions meet required standards.

“For many years, academics have been voicing concerns over declining higher education standards due to the mushrooming growth of universities in both the public and private sector, and they have been calling for strengthening of the existing universities which are facing a financial crunch,” Dr Hamayoon Khan, a professor of agronomy at Peshawar’s University of Agriculture, told University World News.

“But quite contrary to the need of the hour, the government has passed so many bills in a single sitting of the National Assembly to set up so many universities. The move is ill-intentioned, and it seems that powerful businesspersons are behind this legislation,” he said.

Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Noor Alam Khan, who belongs to a group that in June defected from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, also expressed serious concerns. He told parliament: “You can see the existing standard of higher education in the country, especially in the private sector, and setting up over two dozen institutions of higher education through hasty legislation raises serious questions about the quality of private sector higher education in the country.”

Federal Education Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain said during a joint session of parliament on 2 August: “I was away, and when I came back to the National Assembly I was surprised at the passing of these bills. I tried to stop this but somehow the bills sailed through the lower house of parliament.”

A few months ago, the education minister directed the regulatory body, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), not to issue ‘No Objection Certificates’ to new universities in order to maintain and improve the standard of existing institutions.

Procedural problems

The latest bills were moved privately by members of the National Assembly, and it is widely believed that influential persons are behind their passing. Senators and others have also highlighted procedural abnormalities.

Senator Kamran Murtaza of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a partner in the ruling coalition, said in the senate: “These bills were not sent to standing committees of parliament, quite contrary to normal legislation process. Bills for setting up universities were just brought to the National Assembly and were passed immediately. We were not aware of such bills coming to the house, and their approval is yet more astonishing.”

Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan of Jamat-e-Islami also voiced serious concerns over the lack of standard procedures. “We strongly oppose the way these bills were passed by the lower house and vow to resist when those bills are tabled here in the senate.”

He said this way of conducting legislation was “unacceptable”.

“Persons behind the approval of these bills are wealthy people doing higher education business. It seems that the parliamentarians who have helped the passing of these bills will, somehow, get benefits in return for this facilitation,” said Khan.

Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), another partner in the ruling coalition, also spoke against the hasty passage. “These bills must have gone to the relevant standing committees of parliament for review and debate before being passed. This way of legislation will become a problem in the future.”

Senator Irfan Siddiqui of the main ruling coalition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz told University World News: “There has been no parliamentary debate before the passing of the multitudes of bills for setting up many universities. We did not even see these bills in the parliamentary committee meetings. Such practices are undemocratic and must be avoided.”

He said: “The necessary legislation regarding matters of higher education should be left to the new government.”

The term of the present government will end on 13 August, after which a caretaker government will be set up before national elections are held in November this year.

Political leaders, even within the ruling coalition, are questioning what was behind the passing of so many bills in a single day. Critics believe it points to a conflict of interest, suggesting the outgoing government apparently wanted to favour influential, wealthy businesspersons who could be behind some of the institutions set up through the legislation. They note that some National Assembly members tabled four to five university bills and pushed them through.

Legal authority

However, Federal Law Minister Senator Azam Nazeer Tarar held the view that National Assembly members have a legal authority to table any bill in their individual capacity.

He told University World News: “Most of the private bills tabled and approved in the assembly for setting up universities were moved by the individual members in their private capacity. The government cannot stop the process if members of the National Assembly, in their private capacity, move and get their bills approved.”

He said other procedures and formalities for setting up a university remain intact. Passage of the bills did not mean the proposed new universities will not be required to fulfil prerequisites set by the HEC.

HEC Chairperson Dr Mukhtar Ahmed told University World News: “The matter of establishing new universities has not, so far, been referred to the commission. When this comes to the HEC, we will act in accordance with rules and procedures.”

HEC bill

Among the 26 bills were those to set up Askari Institute of Higher Education, Kings Institute of Higher Education, Pak-China Gwadar University Lahore, Bulleh Shah International University, International Memon University, Mufti-e-Azam Islamic University, Islamabad International University, Al-Biruni International University, Horizon University, Federal Ziauddin University, University of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Falcon University of Science and Technology, and National University of Health Emerging Sciences and Technologies.

The National Assembly also passed several bills to set up degree-awarding higher education institutions, including Ume Abeeha Institute of Health Sciences, Ravi Institute, Cosmic Institute of Science and Technologies, International Islamic Institute for Peace, Islamabad Institute of Modern Sciences, Institute of Health and Professional Studies, Shah Bano Institute, North Institute, and Kalam Bibi International Women Institute.

Apart from these 26 bills, the outgoing government already passed some higher education-related bills in previous months which include the National University of Pakistan Bill, the National University of Security Sciences Bill, and the National Excellence Institute Bill.

Among the raft of bills passed this week, the government also managed to get the Higher Education Commission Amendment Bill passed by the National Assembly. The bill has now gone to the senate for the next stage of approval.

This bill was earlier cleared by the federal cabinet in Islamabad, and drew strong criticism over university autonomy issues and for granting arbitrary powers to the prime minister over HEC affairs.