EducationNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 17

HEC crisis not over yet

The “unceremonious” removal of Higher Education Commission (HEC) Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri in the last week of March 2021, proved it once again that groupings exist in all sectors of the country to protect and pursue their vested interests, and the higher education sector is no exception.

Demands and protests by various bodies and associations concerned had been continuing for years for sending Dr Banuri packing through any means, but his removal elicited sharp criticism also by various other bodies and persons concerned.

The Cabinet Secretariat, in a notification issued on March 27, announced the removal of Dr Tariq Banuri. “In terms of Sub-section (5), read with Sub-section (5A), of Section 6 of the Higher Education Commission Ordinance, 2002, as amended vide the Higher Education Commission (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, Dr Tariq Banuri has ceased to be the chairperson, Higher Education Commission, forthwith and is accordingly removed from the post, with immediate effect,” read the notification. He was supposed to complete his four-year term in 2022.

The notification was issued after the promulgation of a presidential ordinance. The ordinance, effecting an amendment to the Section 6, for Sub-Section (5), reads: “The chairperson shall hold office for a period of two years and members shall hold office for a period of four years. In no case the chairperson and members shall be eligible for re-appointment for more than one similar term.”

Dr Tariq Banuri was appointed in May 2018, by the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for a four-year term, and his removal almost one year before the completion of his tenure created ripples in the higher education sector.

The Punjab chapter of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) termed the removal of Dr. Banuri a “hurried and unceremonious” act. The association’s Punjab chapter President, Dr Abdul Sattar Malik, General Secretary Dr Ahtisham Ali, and Punjab University Academic Staff Association (PUASA) General Secretary Dr. Amjad Abbas Magsi, in separate news releases, said that the HEC (Amendment) 2021 Ordinance had been issued in a hurry, without taking the stakeholders into confidence. “The difference of the term of office for chairman merely for two years and for members for four years is not justified in any way. The amendments must have been debated before the parliament first for comprehensive input and consensus legislation,” they said.

In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, FAPUASA Punjab President Dr. Abdul Sattar demanded the amendment should not be a move in any way to give the HEC control to the bureaucracy. “The slot of the HEC chairman must be held by an academician of good repute, with an impeccable record of administration in the higher education sector of Pakistan. Any “imported” solution or a role of the bureaucracy would be detrimental to the higher education sector, which is already facing numerous challenges,” he added.

Dr. Adil Najam, dean, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, reacting to the sacking, said, “Dr. Tariq Banuri was being bullied by pygmies for trying to mend a broken system. What a travesty! This will further wreck an already shattered system.”

GC University Lahore Vice-Chancellor Prof. Dr. Asghar Zaidi, in a tweet, said that Dr. Tariq Banuri was an honest, qualified and competent chairman of the HEC. “I’m sorry to see him leave. With this treatment at the hands of politicians, can we still find a suitable candidate for the HEC chairman post?” the VC questioned.

However, Prof. Zaidi’s criticism prompted Punjab Minister for Higher Education Raja Yassir Humayun to respond immediately. “Sir, (you) can’t blame politicians for everything. There is a mafia in academia, which was cooking this for some time and finally succeeded,” he said on his Twitter account. The minister’s assertion of “a mafia in academia” was not without a reason, by the way. Dr. Banuri’s working relationship with the federal education ministry, vice chancellors’ body, faculty members, employees and media persons had not been good for the last two years. One of the reasons for the sour relations was the appointment of a number of consultants to the HEC against heavy salary packages, in which he allegedly ignored various powerful bodies and appointed only his favourites.

According to a statement of HEC Officers Welfare Association President Raza Chohan, Dr. Banuri called a meeting of the selection board some time before his removal for the appointment of his blue-eyed individuals to the posts of 12 regular directors general (DGs) in grade-20, advisers in grade-21, four positions on MP-1, and two positions of MP-II and MP-III.

The statement said that the CPEC consultant, Lt-Gen (retd) Muhammad Asghar, who is above 70 years of age, was given the charge of the member operations in order to shortlist, scrutinise the favourite individuals of the HEC chairman for appointment to higher positions, in violation of the recruitment rules of the HEC. The CPEC consultant is also facing a National Accountability Bureau (NAB) inquiry, currently underway against Dr. Banuri and other HEC officials. The NAB launched an investigation against Dr. Banuri and, through a letter, had sought details of the consultants appointed by him. He was also directed to provide details of expenses incurred on the inauguration of a university at the PM’s House.

HEC Officers Association President Raza Chohan alleged that during his tenure, Dr. Banuri degraded the institution through his policies. He alleged that the chairman wanted to run the higher education regulatory body as a “one-man show”.

Many academic and administrative staff bodies organised protest demonstrations against Dr. Tariq Banuri in the federal capital and provincial headquarters last year. The chairman of the vice chancellors committee, which is an elected body of VCs, Dr Mohammad Ali, told Cutting Edge by telephone that heads of the country’s universities had many concerns over the policies and approach of the HEC chairman. He said that VCs are major stakeholders, but unfortunately, the HEC for the last couple of years, had been ignoring them in the decision-making process. “We had no working relationship with the former HEC chairman, which was not good for the country’s higher education sector,” he added.