The Higher Education Commission is once again under attack, this time by the government of Sindh. The attacks on the HEC began in September 2008 under the previous PPP government when the scholarships of thousands of students sent abroad by the HEC were stopped, literally forcing many to beg for money. Since most came from poor families, they had no other option.
Appeals to the PPP’s leaders were met with no result, forcing me to resign in protest. The powers of the HEC to hold DDWP meetings and approve projects were then withdrawn, and the status of federal secretary for its executive director was also taken away. Its budget was slashed and then a full attack was launched by trying to devolve the HEC to the provinces.
What better way to destroy an organisation than to shred it into pieces? During the last five years I have had to file a petition twice before the Supreme Court to save it from being illegally devolved and transformed into a subordinate body of the Ministry of Education. I was fortunate to win both times. The nation is thankful to our Supreme Court once again for its decisions. However, the attacks continue.
In open defiance of the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Sindh government passed a law earlier this year forming a parallel body to the HEC. The ‘Sindh HEC’ will take over the federal HEC’s functions and perform them itself. A formal notification to this effect was issued recently. This is obviously illegal as one cannot have a provincial law overriding a federal law (Article 143 of the constitution). The Supreme Court has already ordered on April 12, 2011 that higher education is a federal subject, and this is fully protected under the 18th Amendment to the constitution, and that its status cannot be changed without a constitutional amendment.
The Constitutional Reform Committee formed in connection with the 18th Amendment had decided that the primary and secondary education issues could be dealt with by the provinces, but since issues relating to higher education are concerned with national integration, cohesion and national development, they must be dealt with at the federal level.
Indeed higher education and research is a federal subject all over the world, including India, Korea, Turkey, China, UK and other countries for this reason. The 18th Amendment through the 4th Schedule (Article 70(4) Federal Legislative Lists Part-I and Part-II) therefore completely protects the current powers and functions of the HEC, and mandates higher education and research to be federal subjects. All the provinces are represented by provincial secretaries or their nominees in the governing body of the HEC so they have a say in all the projects that are approved. The other experts nominated by the prime minister are also selected to ensure a provincial balance. This mechanism thus allows all the provinces to actively participate in the development and implementation of all plans and policies of the HEC.
The establishment of the HEC in October 2008 as an autonomous body run by a 16-member board marked a glorious new chapter in the history of Pakistan. Under law, the chairman of the HEC has the status of a federal minister while its executive director had a status of a Federal Secretary. The dramatic changes in our universities have been comprehensively reviewed and reported in voluminous documents of the World Bank, the British Council, USAID, the Royal Society (London) and the United Nations Commission on Science Technology and Development.
Six of our universities were ranked among the top 500 universities of the world and two were ranked among the top 300 of the world — there were none in 2003. Enrolment increased from 270,000 in 2003 to over a million at present, while the number of universities increased from 59 in 2000 to 137 currently. Research output jumped from only about 600 research publications in 2000 to over 8,000 research publications by 2012, and the number of PhDs awarded in the last 10 years was over 5,000 while only 3,500 were produced in the 55 years preceding 2003.
A review of the higher education system of Pakistan was carried out by Prof Michael Rode, chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development, and professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria who visited Pakistan on a number of occasions. In a 2008 article he wrote: “Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years.”
The remarkable progress during 2003-2008, which saw unprecedented development of our universities, caused alarm bells to ring loudly at the highest level in India. Detailed presentations were given to the Indian prime minister about the dramatic advances being made by the HEC. This was prominently reported in The Hindustan Times in an article titled ‘Pak Threat to Indian Science’ (July 23, 2006). The Indians need not have worried. The threat to Pakistan comes not so much from India as from within. We have sunk so low that even ministers of education can be found to have fake school certificates, as well as forged university degrees.
The one light of hope comes from the PML-N. In its manifesto the party declared to protect the autonomy and federal status of the Higher Education Commission. Indeed a number of senior PML-N party members have campaigned to protect the HEC from being destroyed in the past. Meanwhile teachers in Sindh are up in arms against the provincial government for its attempt to intrude into the autonomy of universities by taking away the powers to appoint vice chancellors and senior university officials. The school education system is in tatters in Sindh and now the same will happen to the universities.
There is urgent need for the Supreme Court of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of the contempt committed by the Sindh government by passing a law to form the Sindh HEC, in defiance of the Supreme Court order. The law passed by the Sindh Assembly on February 21, 2013 as well as the notification issued on November 26, 2013 should be considered illegal. All those responsible for passing this law in open defiance of the Supreme Court decision are in contempt. My petition against this illegal action is pending.
The writer is the president of thePakistan Academy of Sciences and
former chairman of the HEC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgDr. Atta-ur-Rahman, "Destroying the HEC," The News. 2013-11-29.
Keywords: Social sciences , Higher education , Educational development , Education-Pakistan , Education-India , Supreme court , 18th amendment , Education , Pakistan , India , Korea , Turkey , China , Sindh , HEC , PPP , PMLN