The Higher Education Commission (HEC) Pakistan has been pushed to the verge of disaster apparently under a scheme, according to the results of a scientific study, released in the third week of April 2018.
The higher educational institution’s regulatory body, with an annual budget of over Rs95 billion, fast lost its credibility during the past four years, due to its poor performance under the incumbent management, according to the report, prepared by eight most reputed academic and research bodies of the country.
Those contributing to the report include: Working Group on Higher Education Reforms, Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association, Islamabad Chapter, Institute for Democratic Education and Accountability (IDEA), Ph.D. Doctors Association Pakistan (PDA), Centre for Inclusive Governance (CIG) Pakistan, National Democratic Foundation (NDF) Pakistan, Youth Council of Pakistan (YCP), Centre for Culture and Development Pakistan (CCDP) and Pakistan Social Services Partnership (PSSP).
Before we go into details of the damages inflicted on the HEC Pakistan under the incumbent management, let’s look at the background of the issue in some detail.
The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan started facing problems in 2010, after it verified the degrees of a large number of people, especially politicians, on the Supreme Court of Pakistan orders, and declared a number of them fake. Under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, introduced in 2010 by the government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), higher education was also declared a provincial subject, meaning that the provincial governments would be responsible for the sector. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, the founder chairman of HEC, believes that the move was aimed at getting rid of an independent body at the Centre. He says politicians deemed it easy to handle the provincial HECs, in the face of verification of their academic qualifications.
The first attempt to devolve the federal HEC was made in 2010, which was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The apex court termed the move illegal in 2011 and declared that fresh legislation was required to move forward on the issue. It also ruled that in case of a conflict, the HEC Ordinance 2002 would take precedence.
Later on, the matter was referred to the Council of Common Interests (CCI), and after almost eight years since the passage of the 18th Amendment, the fate of the HEC has been decided by the Council recently. The CCI declared that the HEC was not being dissolved and the apex education body was given the green signal to continue playing a key role in the country’s higher education sector. However, it also agreed to let provincial HECs function in their respective regions.
The educationists termed the CCI verdict a middle-of-the-road decision, under which powers and responsibilities have been divided among the federation, HEC and the provinces. As before, the federal HEC will still be responsible for devising national policies and standards and at the same time, for setting up minimum standards to be enforced at all higher education institutions. The body will also devise minimum standards for the establishment of institutions of higher education in the country.
The federal HEC will also formulate curriculum as well as be responsible for conducting the process of equivalence of qualification, and recognition and attestation of degrees. The commission will set standards for international collaborations and linkages along with defining national priorities and policy matters for higher education in the country. The body will also be responsible for monitoring the quality of education through its quality assurance cells.
However, some of the roles traditionally carried out by the HEC will now become shared with provincial HECs. These include funds allocation, creating fellowships, scholarships and endowment funds. Both federal and provincial bodies will work together for the promotion of research and strengthen industry-academia linkages, as well as for training human resource and faculty, and taking development initiatives. Collection of information and statistics regarding the sector and promoting links between different institutions and collaborative research, personnel exchange and cost sharing will also be shared by the federal and provincial bodies.
Representation of provinces in the governing body of the HEC will also be increased as part of the collaboration.
Meanwhile, Sindh established its own body, Sindh Higher Education Commission (SHEC) in 2013, and Punjab followed suit in 2015 with its own Punjab Higher Education Commission (PHEC). Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is planning to do the same in the near future, while the Balochistan government has also hinted at setting up a similar body.
But it is regrettable that the HEC, meanwhile, has been damaged to the core. The report prepared by reputable organisations showed that serious irregularities and illegalities were committed at HEC since the appointment of the out-going Chairman Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed. Part I of the report is related to four-year performance of Dr. Mukhtar, as chairperson from April 2014 to April 2018.
According to the report, the HEC is one of the key institutions under the controlling authority of the prime minister of Pakistan, and its success and performance is linked with the future of this nation through almost 187 public and private sector universities.
While reviewing governance crises/violations and irregularities, the report mentioned that a culture of ad hocism and favouritism was deliberately promoted through appointment of a number of senior officers on deputation basis. In addition, in violation of the Supreme Court orders and the HEC recruitment rules, retired government officials’ contracts were extended as the heads of key departments: Audit, Quality Assurance and Chairman Office, etc., and the consultants were made responsible for critically important functions of the HEC, instead of recruiting professionals through an openly competitive process.
The Federal Audit Report 2016-17, released recently, highlighted that the HEC administration failed to utilise 49% of the development funds (Rs373.738 million) due to poor monitoring, inefficient management and weak governance. This happened for the first time in 15 years of the HEC in continuity of recent decline in performance of the Commission, observed by academia at large.
The failure to utilise almost half of the HEC funds led to severe fiscal deficiencies within public sector universities, including delay in completion of higher education projects. According to the report, the compliance status of directives of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) remained zero per cent as 12 directives were still pending for compliance.
Also, says the report, out of 149 new development projects reflected in the annual budget/PSDP (Public Sector Development Programme), the HEC could get only 66 projects approved during the last three years, which resulted in depriving public sector universities of improving existing facilities and fulfilling growing needs.
During these four years, the HEC’s 18-member governing body (Commission) was rendered ineffective and non-functional due to non-appointment of more than 10 regular members. The HEC did not pursue it purposely, to avoid control of the governing body. This led to ad hocism in making policy decisions in violation of the HEC Act.
The report shows that all important policy decisions were made by Dr. Mukhtar himself, without getting approval of the HEC governing body or the prime minister, who is the controlling authority of the HEC, and without consultation with stakeholders concerned.
The current financial year budget 2017-18 was not approved by the HEC Board, which is required under the HEC Act. Two meetings were also mandatory as per the Act, but none was held. As per clause 10 (g and h) of the HEC Ordinance, the Commission was bound for provision of recurring and development funding on performance and need basis and review/ examination of the financial requirements of public sector institutions.
The chairperson deliberately put aside the decision of the parliamentary forum of the Senate Standing Committee on Education which, in its meeting dated September 18, 2014, had asked the HEC to develop certain formulae for funding to the universities, revealed the report. The committee remarked: “The HEC should not unilaterally decide who should get what amount.”
The report points out that the HEC administration, instead of playing a supportive role, continued unnecessary interference in internal affairs of public sector universities. The report revealed that violating the HEC Ordinance 2002 and ignoring the key recommendations/ decisions of Steering Committee on Higher Education (2002) and Task Force on Improvement in Higher Education in Pakistan (2002), the HEC was converted into an authority instead of a facilitative body. Countrywide protests by foreign/ local Ph.D. holders were reported against the discriminatory policies of the HEC administration, as more than 1,400 Ph.D. holders also suffered due to delay in verification of degrees because of which most of them could not get jobs.
According to the report, the HEC also failed in effective implementation of the Prime Minister’s Laptop Scheme, which was assigned to it. The HEC leadership also faced allegations of irregularities in the laptop scheme for talented students, which is being probed by NAB (National Accountability Bureau) currently, besides raising several objections over its process by the Pakistan chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The report suggests a thorough investigation into all these illegalities and irregularities by NAB and bringing the culprits to book.