The implementation of the 18th Amendment has generated a debate in academic and other interested circles, political as well as non-political, due to its far reaching implications for higher education. This piece attempts to explain the implications, apprehensions and the possible policy responses.
The 18th Amendment abolishes the concurrent list, thus devolving a number of subjects, including higher education, to the federating units. However, it awards the responsibility of standard setting to the federal list. This means the end of the federal education ministry and, more important, the end of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), at least as we know it. It is the implications of the change in HEC that has generated debate in academia. The broader divide is between those who consider the HEC’s survival in its present form vital for the growth of quality higher education and those who consider the main issue ensuring the autonomy of the campuses and devising a new system in the light of the 18th Amendment, which will ensure the enhanced funding that was made available through the HEC.
The protagonists of the HEC argue that if it is devolved to the provinces, the increased funding made available to it since 2002 will dry up, resulting in discontinuation of a large number of both indigenous and foreign PhD scholarships and research projects. They further argue that the large number of new universities is a gift of the HEC and also credit increased enrolment, research publications and PhD degree holders to HEC. It has also been argued that the degrees awarded by the Pakistani universities have achieved a better level of recognition as a result of HEC’s policies and verification system. A more serious fear is expressed that the devolution of higher education to the provinces will mean loss of autonomy of the universities and a greater level of intrusion from both the provincial bureaucracy and politicians. Thus, it is inferred that if the HEC is wound up or its powers and functions reduced, all the good things that have happened to higher education will come to end.
The question is: how would the surge in funding decline with HEC’s end or change in its status? If it was generated by the HEC and belongs to it, then there may be some truth in this. The fact is that the funding to the HEC came from the government directly or because of the government from USAID and the World Bank (WB). International funding has been available to higher education along with other sectors after September 11, 2001. Our international supporters were willing to support the state and the people for reasons well known. The state created a certain system through the establishment of HEC to receive and utilise that fund. The situation that convinced foreign donors has not changed and will not change by the demise of or change in the status of HEC. The provision in the agreement between the WB and the HEC to the effect that “any change in the current HEC status will result in end of funding” simply means that it is giving funds to HEC because of its status and role as an agency made responsible by the state to receive such funds. That provision was not and cannot be interpreted as protecting HEC but rather protecting funding for higher education through the HEC so long as the HEC is responsible for higher education. As such, the funding to HEC will end as it has been reported in the newspapers, but will resume through the alternate mechanism/s created for the purpose. Once funding is assured, there is no reason to fear the termination or suspension of the ongoing projects or scholarships as well as their future continuity.
The increased number of universities, both in the private and public sector, is the result of government policy and has nothing to do with HEC. HEC simply was not, is not, and has never tried to be a university-creating body. It only sets certain standards for an institution to be a university or a degree awarding body. The power to award degrees is granted by the state and not by the HEC. Similarly, if, when and where to create a university are the decisions of the government of the day, not HEC. There is also a question whether this mushrooming of universities is a good policy or not, whether it promotes quality higher education or not. However, the HEC can neither be given credit for it nor accused for the number.
The increased number of PhDs and scholarships is the direct result of more funds being available. If there was no increased funding, scholarships or other projects would not have been possible, HEC or no HEC. The increased number of PhDs is also a result of this becoming a requirement for appointment at senior levels. Again, that requirement was made much earlier than HEC was established. One must acknowledge that HEC has established a good system for evaluation of research journals and research publications. That may need a little rationalisation but overall it is a good contribution. However, that such a system could not have been created without the HEC is not a very strong claim. Now that it is there, the bodies replacing the HEC can keep it, as there may be other contributions of the HEC that may be retained.
International recognition of degrees from Pakistani universities has not been affected at all by the HEC. The level of recognition remains the same as it was. Mostly western universities equate educational qualifications based on the years of education and admissions to various programmes are based on certain tests, like GRE, GMAT, TOEFL or IELTS. A degree attested by the HEC is not given any more credibility than one attested by the university granting it. Rather, the university that has granted a degree is a much better and more authentic authority for verification or attestation than the HEC or any other place. Even if others do it, they have to rely on evidence provided by the degree awarding institution.
The real issue is not HEC or devolution but the appropriate level of autonomy of the university campus. Academia fears intrusion by the provincial bureaucracy and politicians. There is a need for the creation of an alternate system that addresses this apprehension. There has to be an autonomous provincial body, free of the influence of the provincial government. However, it should not be a replication of HEC at the provincial level. It must be remembered that HEC had also curtailed freedom of the campus and had developed the habit of micro-managing universities. The new system must avoid that. The government must act urgently to create an alternative with inputs and consultation of the stakeholders, academics being the central ones, and people with a much better understanding of the needs and requirements of a modern university. The 18th Amendment gives the federation the responsibility for standard setting, which means a restructured HEC or a new body succeeding it at the federal level may continue with the coordination, standard setting, quality enhancement and assurance, accreditation and equivalence functions. The fear that higher education in different provinces will be totally different from one another is not very well founded either. The devolution of higher education as a result of the 18th Amendment provides for a certain level of standardisation along with providing enough room for diversity and freedom.
Our universities may not be ideal and do have a lot of deficiencies, but they are full of highly qualified academics with degrees and work experience in the developed world. In the interim period, the continuity of the ongoing projects and payments of scholarships to those already enrolled as well as those about to proceed must be ensured.
The writer is the chairman of department of International Relations, University of Peshawar