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Higher education: federal or provincial?

Ever since the current government assumed charge in Islamabad, there has been a renewed discussion about a ‘uniform curriculum’. In its desire to introduce uniformity, the Ministry of Education should not neglect two more important issues: the appointment of vice-chancellors (VCs) and strengthening of provincial higher education commissions.

One fails to understand why the appointment of new VCs has become such an arduous task that ad-hoc appointments are made. Even the previous government released an advertisement for new VCs in November 2013 but the process was completed only in October 2014, and in the meantime acting or ad-hoc VCs served amid uncertainty.

When you appoint an acting VC, the office-bearer becomes a lame duck; they can’t make important decisions and are constantly under threat of being removed for any misstep. Ideally, the process for recruiting new VCs should start much earlier and the decision should be made before the end of the incumbent VCs’ tenures. Normally, a senior dean is appointed as acting VC and in many cases when that acting VC hands over charge to a new VC, the dean (acting VC) feels belittled as the decision-makers did not consider the dean competent enough to continue as VC.

This all results in poor governance and engenders an atmosphere of uncertainty. Meanwhile, students and faculty feel uncomfortable as some vital decisions are delayed and a pall of stagnation hovers over the university. In April 2018, an advertisement was released to seek applications from potential candidate for three federal universities in Islamabad: Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), International Islamic University (IIU), and Allama Iqbal University (AIOU). The idea was to appoint new VCs before the end of the incumbent VCs’ tenure. Now it has been almost six months but no progress has been made in this regard.

The process has become so cumbersome that it becomes tiring for everyone, from the search committee to the candidates themselves who have to appear for interviews and then wait for the results. There appear to be two possible solutions to this: one, if a VC has performed well for four years, there is no harm in extending his or her term for another four years. The performance should be judged against a set of criteria.

For example, Dr Shahid Siddiqui has done reasonably well to improve teaching and learning at AIOU. He has introduced new courses and disciplines, has considerably improved the methodology of distance education, and has also improved the system of assessment. This all can be verified from academically independent sources. A person of his calibre deserves an extension in his tenure. The second solution appears to be traditional but useful – rather than going through the rigmarole of a search committee that becomes controversial, it is much better to review the performance of three to five senior-most deans at the university and then appoint the one who has performed better during his or her term as the dean.

There was a time when chancellors (governors or president) used to get the names of three senior deans to select the new VC. For example, at the University of Karachi we had VCs such as Dr Mahmud Hussain, Dr Irtifaq Ali, Masoom Ali Tirmazi, Dr Manzuruddin Ahmed, Dr Zafar Zaidi, Dr Zafar Saeed Saifi, and many others who belonged to the same university and knew it very well. Some of them performed extremely well, whereas others just bid there time but there was no delay in appointments. There is no guarantee that if you bring an outsider as VC, he or she will perform well.

The examples for that are IIU and QAU; both had VCs from outside but continuously faced problems in management. It is not a good idea to constitute a new search committee every now and then. Ideally, the committee should have ex-officio members such as chairpersons of federal and provincial HECs, and the ministers of federal and provincial higher education. Their first priority should be to see if an incumbent VC has performed well to get an extension. The second priority should be to see if a senior dean from within the university can be promoted to become VC.

An outsider should be the third and last choice – and that too in exceptional cases. Federal and provincial HECs should develop a set of criteria to evaluate VCs’ performance. If VCs know that there is a possibility of extension, they would strive to perform better. If they realise that, no matter how hard they work, they will not get an extension, their motivation falls. No VC should serve for more than two terms at a university, and even the second tenure should be offered only on extraordinary performance. The second important task is strengthening of provincial HECs.

After the 18th constitutional amendment, education at all levels has been devolved to provinces. But even after almost eight years only Punjab and Sindh have been able to establish their HECs. During the tenure of the previous HEC chairman, no efforts were made to facilitate provinces in establishing and nurturing provincial HECs. It is about time the federal HEC and the federal ministry of education stopped meddling into provincial educational affairs under the garb of uniformity. All funds for higher education should be transferred to provincial HECs so that they can develop their own capacity with help – and without intimidation – from the federal HEC.

The Federation of All Pakistan Universities Staff Association (FAPUASA) has also been demanding that provincial HECs be established and strengthened. In 2011, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) had decided that after the 18th Amendment ‘a limited extent body would continue to work as commission of standards in institutions of higher education’. In the 35th meeting of the CCI held in Feb 2018, again it was decided unanimously that the federal government would deal with ‘minimum national standards and defining national policy in higher education’.

It was also decided that provinces would play the main role in the higher education sector while performing 12 key functions including policy formulation, regulation of higher education, issuance of guidance and NOCs for establishment of new universities and implementation of the quality assurance system. The establishment and strengthening of provincial HECs becomes even more imperative if you consider that out of around 190 recognized degree-awarding institutes (DAIs) and universities in the country, less than 20 percent (35) are federally chartered and over 80 percent (155) DAIs are provincially chartered. There is no need for the federal ministry or the HEC to unduly interfere in matters provincial.

Dr Mahboob Hussain, central president of FAPUASA, has been actively advocating the cause of higher education. He and his colleagues are striving for stronger provincial HECs; it is about time the federal authorities listened to their sane advice. The argument that provinces lack capacity in higher education does not hold ground as even federal ministries and the HEC rely upon staff coming from provinces. DAIs in all provinces have some excellent senior faculty members who have contributed tremendously in the education sector and they are the ones who will help the provincial HECs.

The federal government and the HEC should realise that the 18th Amendment was passed unanimously by parliament with the presence of all political parties. Any attempt to roll back or hamper progress in its implementation will have dire consequences for the federation. The sectors that have been devolved to the provinces should remain there – and prosper.

Title : Higher education: federal or provincial?
Author : Dr Naazir Mahmood
Type : Column
Role Performer : The Author
Subject : HEC
Publisher : The News
Publication Place : Islamabad
Date : 2018-09-29
Language : English