The federal government’s move to amend the Ordinance of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to curtail its autonomy and control its functions, has sent shockwaves across the higher education sector in the country.
The HEC was established in 2002 as an autonomous institution to ensure the promotion of quality education without any political interference. However, on Wednesday, the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases decided to amend the HEC Ordinance.
The draft amendment, which will come into force after approval of the prime minister and the president, has three components, including prematurely removing the current HEC chairman and 18 members of the commission; reducing their future terms from 4 to 2 years (thus rendering them ineffective); and transferring authority to a government-appointed executive director, who could be changed on a moment’s notice. In other words, it will convert the HEC into a subordinate department of the Federal Education Ministry.
The federal government’s bid to intrude into HEC autonomy has particularly upset the vice chancellors and senior faculty of both public and private sector universities. “The PTI government has really damaged the universities sector through its anti-education policies. It has slashed funding for higher education, appointed corrupt and unprofessional persons to statutory positions in universities and undertaken a broad assault on the autonomy of educational institutions, including the HEC,” said the vice chancellor of a public sector university, requesting anonymity.
It is not the first time that the federal government is on a collision course with the HEC. A decade ago, the then PPP regime had run into conflict with the HEC led by a professional educationist after he refused to compromise on the issue of fake degrees of parliamentarians. However, despite that, the PPP authorities did not go to the extent of amending the HEC Ordinance to suit their political interests.
Sources claim that the amendment was approved despite serious reservations by some members of the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases during its consecutive meetings on Monday and Wednesday. Yet, the all-powerful bureaucrat close to the prime minister, the ‘Strong Arm of bureaucracy’, was able to get the minutes of the last meeting approved.
Even though the HEC is based in Islamabad, four of the 18 members of the HEC Commission represent the provinces while two represent the Federation. Therefore, any move to curtail the autonomy of the HEC may also harm the growing cooperation between the HEC and provincial higher education set-ups.
The sitting chairman HEC, a ‘Nobel Laureate’ who was decorated for having being part of the team that wrote a report on climate change and who has a doctorate from Harvard University, was appointed in May 2018 for a four-year term by PML-N government of caretaker prime minister.