Friday, April 8, 2011

The Dissolution of the Higher Education Commission

9 years ago, 2 exceptional men moved from the Information and Technology Ministry to the newly founded Higher Education Commission, an autonomous entity that was replacing the well-meaning but largely ineffective University Grants Commission. One was, of course, Dr. Ata ur Rehman, whose reputation precedes him. I could spend this entire article raving about Dr. Ata, who got his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Cambridge. He has won domestic and international accolades for his outstanding contributions in the field of science and academics. I refer you to his Wikipedia page for a more comprehensive list of his achievements. The other person was my father, Dr. Sohail Naqvi. Over the last 9 years, I have seen first-hand how my father has poured his heart and soul into working towards the betterment of this country. It was, therefore, one of the saddest moments of my life when my mother called me a couple of weeks back to confirm the rumors the HEC was indeed being disbanded. Here is why you should be heartbroken about this as well:

Let me start by highlighting a few things HEC has done since it’s inauguration in 2002. Perhaps the most prominent stat is the incredible number of Ph.D. students that the HEC has helped produce. Between1947 to 2002, Pakistan produced roughly 3000 Ph.D. students. After the HEC was founded in 2002, Pakistan produced 3280 Ph.D. students in 8 years. That, of course, has helped research output grow six-fold since 2002. Second, while there have been accusations that HEC has over-invested in Punjab, the biggest investment by share has been in Khyberpakhtunkhwa. New universities have been set up in Bannu, Kohat, Malakand, Swat and Mardan. Balochistan has also seen an uptick in higher education, with 4 universities added to the 2 that already existed in 2002. Finally, there are currently over 7,500 HEC-funded scholars pursuing their Ph.Ds locally and abroad. All of these scholars are now in jeopardy of losing their scholarships as the governments tries to deal with the mess they have created. This is just scratching the surface of what HEC has accomplished, for a more comprehensive list of achievements please refer to this document, which has provided the basis for most of the facts in this article.

Moving on, let us get to the part where the government dissolves the HEC, despite opposition from almost all other major political parties including the PML-N, MQM, JI and PTI. This is being done under the direction of Raza Rabbani, the chairman of the implementation committee of the 18th Amendment. To clarify, HEC is not against devolution per se; it had, for example, already started to devolve many important tasks like faculty training to the provincial level. That, however, is only a small part of what HEC does: most tasks simply cannot be devolved efficiently. The 18th Amendment recognized this and put in place many provisions to protect the functions of HEC. An example is the following exerpt from the 18th Amendment, which highlight integral functions of the HEC:
  • Fourth Schedule [Article 70(4)]: Federal Legislative List Part I
  • Item # 16: Federal agencies and institutes for the following purposes, that is to say, for research, for professional or technical training, or for the promotion of special studies.
  • Item # 17: Education as respects Pakistani students in foreign countries and foreign students in Pakistan.
  • Item # 32: International treaties, conventions and agreements and International arbitration.
  • Item # 59: Matters incidental or ancillary to any matter enumerated in this Part.
To find a way around this, Raza Rabbani and his Committee have decided to play musical chairs with the functions of the HEC that cannot be devolved. For example, the degree verification function is being transferred from the HEC to the cabinet division. This, beyond its recent role in determining eligibility for public office, is of vital importance. In order for anyone to be able to seek work outside Pakistan, they had to get their degree verified by the HEC. This is in part because HEC has earned membership of the Asia Pacific Quality Network, as well as the Network of Quality Assurance Agencies of the World. These prestigious memberships are not transferable, so the international recognition of Pakistani degrees will be devalued once the Cabinet Ministry takes over verification duties. Despite this, under the plan to dissolve the HEC degree attestation will come under the cabinet division, and the hard work done by the HEC in establishing the credibility of a Pakistani degree will be lost. Instead, people like Rehman Malik and company will be in charge of determining validity of Pakistanis' degrees.

As alluded to earlier, one of the many drawbacks of this dissolution plan is that the funding and studies of Pakistani scholars studying abroad through HEC programs would be in jeopardy. This is another function of HEC that is not being devolved, but simply being moved to the Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination, where Raza Rabanni himself is the minister. These programs are under jeopardy because they are being funded through loans coming from the IMF and World Bank, as the government allocated zero funding towards the HEC in the past fiscal year. The World Bank and USAID came to the rescue, giving HEC loans of US $300 million and US $250 million respectively. These loans are contingent on the assumption that HEC stays as it is, so Raza Rabanni’s recent assurance in the press that these scholars would be unaffected by this move is simply untrue.

This is only the beginning of our defense of HEC here at the rickshaw. Hopefully we will have more literature up for you in the coming days about all aspects of the dissolution of HEC. For now, please join the movement to stop this madness on Facebook at: