Professor Dr. Tariq Banuri was appointed as chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in the last week of May 2018. Before we list the tasks he is supposed to perform in the days to come to revive and reform higher education in the country, let’s have a look at his qualifications and achievements as an academician and an educationist. It will help understand how much we are justified in pinning high hopes on him for start of a new era in the country’s higher education sector.
According to a press release, issued by the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (USA), on June 6, 2018, Professor Tariq Banuri has been appointed chairman of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission. Earlier, he had been working as an economics professor and associate director of the US-Pakistan Centres for Advanced Studies in Water at the U. He also served on the executive committee of the U Water Centre.
Prof. Banuri also served as an executive director of the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, a dedicated research institute for climate change studies in Pakistan. He was the founding executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan and founding director of the Bangkok Centre of the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Prof. Banuri worked as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He holds a doctoral degree from Harvard in economics, completed his master’s degree in development economics from Williams College and earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering from the University of Peshawar.
At the University of Utah, Banuri worked to establish the US-Pakistan Centres for Advanced Studies in Water as a model for applied research on solving the world’s water crisis. Founded in 2015 with the support of USAID, the Centres is a nexus of higher education, government, business and communities working to foster water security in Pakistan. Alongside partner university, Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Banuri and other U researchers are forging solutions to water-related problems that inhibit education, health and stability. These water challenges — scarcity, inadequate sanitation and inefficient management — have a global significance and represent opportunities for sustainable solutions in other regions, including the American West.
However, at the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the nature of his responsibilities would be different, multidimensional. The Commission is an independent, constitutionally established institution with a mandate to finance, oversee, regulate and accredit all institutions of higher learning in Pakistan.
Established in 2002, the HEC performs important functions in higher education sector pertaining to accreditation of new and existing universities, degree awarding institutions, funding (both development and recurring), planning and development, recognition and equivalency of degrees, setting policy guidelines such as in the appointment and promotion of faculty, research, quality assurance, faculty development programmes and in improving the standard of university education in country.
In the following lines, we briefly list the tasks awaiting action by the new commander at the HEC.
In his own words, students and faculty would be the major focus under his stewardship. There is no denying the fact that following transparent and merit-based mechanisms for appointments to higher education institutions, following the universal principle of “right man for the right job”, is the first and foremost challenge. It is regrettable that currently in the Pakistani universities, most of the teachers at M.Phil. and Ph.D. levels are too incompetent to carry out research work due to lack of knowledge about research methodologies.
On the other hand, it is also quite unfortunate that hundreds of jobless Ph.D. holders are seen protesting outside the HEC and press clubs for jobs. It is hoped that new the HEC chief would also play his role in the placement of all competent and qualified persons as hundreds of posts are lying vacant at the higher education institutions since long.
The Commission, as people concerned say, feels uneasy about the inadequacies in Pakistan higher education system, particularly in terms of quality and standards. The situation of higher education is not just completely unsatisfactory, it is alarming. Perhaps, it was the reason that in his initial media talk, the new HEC chairman vowed to work for improvement of quality standards in higher education.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s annual report 2017 rightly described the state of higher education in the country in one sentence, “The focus has not been on promotion of higher education, but on legal battles and survival issues.” Pakistan’s higher education is not ranked anywhere among the world higher education systems in terms of quality. The Quacquarelli Symonds-(QS) World Universities Rankings for the year 2017 saw only one of our 180-plus universities included in the top 500 universities. In the World University Ranking for 2017, issued by Times Higher Education, one Pakistani university made it to the top 500, whereas only two universities were included in the top 800.
Such an alarming situation warrants special measures by the new head of the HEC. The country cannot progress until its higher education system is qualitatively strong enough because the poor quality of education is resulting in low employability, low performance of specialised individuals, and lack of innovative and creative ideas. These are the key elements of success and progress presently.
Experts believe special initiatives are required to enhance employability. Curriculum and content has to be continually renewed and skill development networks set up. Collection of data on job market trends, its analysis and dissemination is important. Drawbacks mentioned above need to be transformed into the strength of the Pakistan higher education system, but this can only be done with strong willpower, determination and willingness to change. And we hope the new HEC chief possesses all these qualities.
Another major challenge for the new HEC head is bringing about positive reforms within HEC through ensuring regular meetings of HEC’s governing board, the key body responsible for formulation of policies and responsible for improvement of higher education in the country. It is unfortunate that the body remained dysfunctional during last few years and even critical policy decisions were made without its prior approval. Other organisational issues which require immediate attention are ensuring transparency and merit in key decisions, bringing an end to ad-hocism within the HEC through discouraging the culture of deputation and extension and ensuring publication of HEC annual reports.
In 2002, when the Higher Education Commission was established in Pakistan, it was easy to manage 30 plus universities. But now, the number of recognised universities has increased to 180-plus in the country with more than 110 additional countrywide campuses. Out of them, only 19% of universities are federally charted universities, while provincial governments chart the majority of the universities, 81% (152 out of 188). Like the other federations, the provincial governments are governing the universities established by provincial authorities.
Another significant challenge in the higher education sector, which requires immediate attention of the new HEC chief, is restoring the Commission’s role as a supportive and facilitative body through respecting the autonomy of universities in the light of recommendations of the Steering Committee on Higher Education 2002. Dr. Tariq Banuri himself played a vital role in preparing these recommendations along with other reputed academicians.
Higher education experts believe that the right to academic freedom is important in order to enable the faculty members, researchers, and students to carry out their roles. The courses and curricula are not designed in accordance with the standard of higher education of the present day. There is no continuity of some of the important courses: there is also no relationship between the related courses of common or similar knowledge. So many important and modern courses required for higher education are not taught at all. All these areas need focus and the special attention of the HEC authorities.
And lastly, another very important issue: giving social sciences their due status in higher education. Being the first HEC chairman with a social sciences background, it is expected that Dr. Banuri would play his role for revival of social sciences in Pakistan through meaningful engagement with other organisations working for strengthening social sciences, for example, the Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Working Group on Higher Education Reforms and the Council of Social Sciences.