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Friday, March 25, 2011

Political maneuvering "Higher Education"

Institution building is an arduous task, and it requires vision, strategy, resources and leadership. It takes consistent efforts, teamwork and perseverance to realise an institution’s mission. There are many institutions, some known and widely publicised and some not so known and doing good work quietly, that we have built in different fields of national life. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) is one of the institutions that we can be very proud of.

There is little doubt in my mind that the HEC was a net positive investment for Pakistan’s educational development. The news of the HEC’s ‘devolution’ under the 18th Amendment was quite disconcerting because this decision has been made with little forethought and has all the markings of dubious political motives. Higher education is a national priority issue because of its importance in development across the board. We cannot afford to have ‘devolution’ in this regard because higher education deserves to be a national ‘equaliser’. The minimum quality requirements and the numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors, economists and social scientists needed for nation-building have to be determined through careful central planning regarding human resource requirements in various sectors. A multiplicity of standards and regulations would be disastrous.

Under the leadership of world-renowned chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society Dr Attaur Rahman, the HEC raised the international stature of Pakistani universities and gave ample opportunities for scholarships for Pakistani students and faculty. It has played a key role in expanding the national network of public universities and establishing standards for higher education. Higher education in public and private sectors has really taken off well through the HEC, which at this stage needs to be consistent with an eye on quality. The number of scholarships to pursue higher studies in Pakistan and abroad through a transparent and open merit system as well as grants for fellowship, scientific research and conferences. The scale of what has been and is currently being done in these fields is unparalleled in the history of our country. Pakistan made remarkable progress during 2001-2008 in higher education. There was a 600 per cent increase in scientific publications in international journals and a 1,000 per cent increase in citations in this period. Today, several of our universities are ranked among the top 500.

All good institutions, and even the best ones, need evaluation, reform and constant restructuring to improve. The HEC cannot be an exception to this natural rule of development. Most of the critique over the years has come from two types of commentators. One is from the usual cynic brigade that sees no good happening in Pakistan, anywhere or by anyone except for what they do — spread pessimism and read our progress as accidental or inadequate. Others have set standards comparable to the best in international academia. Yes, we must raise our standards as high as possible but we must never loosen our grasp of the realities and constraints within which we function. No doubt when large quantities of funds are involved, there are always some detractors about the competing uses of such funds.Some critics of the HEC contended that the money should be used for primary education instead. Of course, primary education is important, but for long-term development higher education is also necessary. There needs to be simultaneous investment in both.

Today, the issue is very different; it is not of reform and restructuring of the HEC but of its disinvestment and disbanding. The reason why this is being done are shrouded in legality but has either political motivation or lack appropriate appreciation of what the HEC has accomplished or how, given its strengths and experience, it can contribute to the advancement of higher education in the country. Foreign scholarships, educational standards and evaluation of degrees and university performance are absolutely compatible with the letter and spirit of the 18th Amendment. Disintegration of the HEC will empower no one; do no good, save nothing. Higher education must not fall prey to petty political bickering.

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