Politicisation of Education and the HEC

The following article by Kamila Hyat does a great job of looking at the debate about the Higher Education Commission and the best way to improve education in Pakistan.

A lower-key controversy that had been wafting in the wind for some time over the future of the Higher Education Commission, established amidst much fanfare in 2002 by then president, Pervez Musharraf, to replace the Universities Grants Commission, has flared now into a far more ugly war.

It appears that the HEC may be done away with under the 18th Amendment which devolves education to the provinces. Some of the less sensible assertions being made suggest either that the HEC be packed up because it was the ‘gift’ of a dictator, or else that it is being victimised because it had found the degrees of so many legislators to be false.

In the high-pitched arguments that have been raging on, we appear – as we rather often do – to have lost all sense of perspective. The question is not so much that of how the HEC was set up or by whom, but whether it is serving any useful purpose today in the labyrinth of horrors that is our education system.

It is certainly true that the body has done some good. Some 4,000 Pakistanis are currently pursuing PhDs overseas on HEC scholarships, another 1,000 are studying medicine in Cuba as part of a programme backed by the Cuban government. The brave efforts of the body to tackle the enormous issue of plagiarism in higher education and initiate action against professors at top institutions must also be lauded.

Other work undertaken by the HEC is of course more questionable. The criterion used for its ranking of universities has been criticised. In 2005, its acquisition of highly costly scientific equipment was strongly questioned and there have been many accusations of attempting to intervene to too great a degree in the affairs of institutions, and thereby placing their autonomy under pressure.

It is a fact also that much of what the HEC has been able to do stems from the enormous budgets allocated to it since its inception. These have run into billions. The slashing of the budget to Rs 15.76 billion for 2010-11 fiscal year, against a demand of Rs 30 billion, drew loud protests, from university VCs as well as the powerful HEC lobby itself.

The question of the HEC’s future and the arguments being put forward can in some ways only be adequately assessed by taking a wider look at our nightmarish educational picture. The report on Pakistan’s educational emergency produced by the Pakistan Education Taskforce emphasises – with much drama – all that is wrong. This is a useful function, but surely a government body should be focusing on how to deal with the problem rather than describing it.

Declaring an ‘educational emergency’ as the prime minister has said is to happen, does not address the needs on the ground for better schools, a high quality of education in the public-sector and, to help achieve all this, more spending on education.

The huge allocations in the past for the HEC may, or may not, have improved the state of higher learning in the country. But logic dictates that if we are to get anywhere with our education and climb up the academic ladder quickly, at least to the level of other South Asian countries, we need to start at the bottom of the pyramid and not its very top.

The masses of children who are still deprived of even schooling that is adequate at the most rudimentary levels all over the country need to be given the start in life that is vital to open up opportunities and lift them above the poverty in which their families grovel.

The highest budgets then need to go to education at the primary level rather than at the apex. Only a miniscule percentage of those who begin schooling are able to reach levels that go beyond the intermediate.

Unless the first rung in the ladder is secure and solidly bolted to the frame we cannot really hope for success at the top. This is one reason why no Pakistani university ranks among the top 100 in the world according to the HEC. The future of the HEC then needs to be seen as a part of the whole educational jigsaw – and all the pieces that have dropped out from it.

Politics should not really enter into the picture. We are already beginning to see a distinct polarisation along these lines. Much of what should really be discussed has become lost as a result of this. The HEC has undoubtedly helped generate debate on issues in higher education. This process needs to be continued. It would be a pity to lose all the more beneficial functions of the body as the process of devolution takes place. The matter needs to be given some thought by policy makers, while remaining within the ambit of the 18th Amendment.

The most crucial need of all is however to find political commitment for the cause of education. This has been missing for the last six decades since Pakistan came into being. The result of course is the educational disaster, at both the higher and lower levels, that we see today.

The dichotomy that has been created in education, with the children of the wealthy attending elite private schools and those of the poor consigned to the far harsher environments of madressahs, government schools or all kinds of poorly regulated private institutions, also means that unscrambling the educational jumble is not a priority for the political leadership, whose own children rank of course among the privileged.

Too often, we see nearly an attempt to tinker with the system for cosmetic reasons rather than make any effort to introduce the wide ranging educational revolution that we require.

The HEC issue needs to be removed from politics. It also needs to be treated in relation to the larger education situation, rather than as an isolated issue. Pakistan’s problems with education were well-established even before the latest taskforce report. The real need is to solve them rather than engaging in petty squabbles of all kinds and refusing to meet the overwhelming needs of a population that is often subjected to still further neglect when ugly quibbling of the kind we see now breaks out.

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