Prof Ijaz Khan: 18th Amendment, HEC and higher education

Dr Ijaz Khan, University of Peshawar

Following article was published in Daily Times of 8 April 2011. It is shared here to add to the discussion about devolution and possible ways to improve education policy.

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


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.

HEC Not Worth Defending

Higher Education Commission

Judging by newspaper headlines and TV talk shows, one might be forgiven for thinking that devolution of the HEC will result in the end of education in the country. What a bunch of non sense. If we take an objective look at the HEC – and the status of education more generally – it is quite clear that the HEC is simply not worth defending.

Attaur Rahman, former chairman of the HEC, writes in The Express Tribune that the central planning by the institution is required to produce graduates needed to build the country’s economy.

The minimum quality requirements and the numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors, economists and social scientists needed for nation-building have to be determined through careful central planning regarding human resource requirements in various sectors. A multiplicity of standards and regulations would be disastrous. That is why the world over, including in India, higher education planning and funding is done centrally, even though universities are located in the provinces.

But the US, which has the world’s highest standard for higher education, does not practice central planning, nor does it set a uniform national curriculum. Actually, quite the opposite. US schools compete with each other by setting their own standards and curricula and, through this competition, raise the quality of education all round.

In fact, an article in The Wall Street Journal looks at the state of higher education in India and concludes that despite praise from Attaur Rahman, the centralized bureaucracy has created graduates ‘unfit’ for good jobs.

Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

This is not unlike the ‘good work’ done by the HEC. Attaur Rahman lists various awards received by the HEC, but awards only create economic growth for HEC chairmen, not for the rest of the nation. And let us consider what Dawn listed as the successes of the institution last week:

For instance, since its coming into being in 2002, the number of public sector universities and degree awarding institutions almost doubled from 59 to 127 while student enrollment went up from 135,000 to 400,000. Thanks to the HEC`s efforts, the country produced 3,037 new PhDs from 2003 to 2009; compare this to the 3,281 scholars we produced from 1947 to 2002.

What difference does it make if HEC is increasing the number of degree awarding institutions and producing new PhDs when the result is universities and think-tanks producing graduates that are not prepared to compete with graduates from other countries? What good is a national curriculum that parrots a failed establishment ideology instead of teaching critical thinking and complex problem solving?  And, please, let us be honest. HEC has not even been able to impose uniform standards or managed even to implement its own rules in a consistent manner as many defense institutes choose to defy HEC mandates and operate under their own regimes.

What is truly telling, however, is that many of the people most loudly demanding that the HEC continue as is went to school overseas themselves and would never allow their own children to attend schools under HEC supervision.

We deserve better.

Let’s have a real discussion about education in this country, shall we? We currently spend around 2% of GDP on education. This is unacceptable. A report by Ahsan Iqbal published by The Pakistan Education Task Force concludes that,

The truth is that Pakistani policymakers have little handle on what is currently being spent on education. We need urgently to gain greater clarity over the current situation and also to analyse what needs to be spent if governments are to meet their constitutional obligations on education.

Ahsan notes that this cannot be done by provinces alone, but neither has it been done under the authority of the HEC. That he why he insists that answer lies in a new approach, on in which

“Both federal and provincial governments need to work together, assisted, if necessary, by Pakistan’s top economists to discover what we know about financing, and – as importantly – what we don’t know.”

The sad fact is that we are failing our children when it comes to education. And by failing our children, we are failing our own future. No matter how many ‘degree awarding institutions’ are opened, it will mean nothing if we continue to ignore the persistent problems with providing basic education to millions of our own citizens. And, here’s an uncomfortable fact, a real solution to the education emergency will require that you pay your taxes.

Education emergency is a problem that must be addressed honestly, sincerely, and seriously. Not with sensational threats about losing hundreds of millions in USAID and World Bank funding. International donors are not interested in HEC patronage or ideologies of central planning. They will help fund any education program that works.

We need to stop putting politics above our children’s education by defending the ‘status quo’ out of a misplaced sense of political gamesmanship. The HEC may have had some successes, but it had not brought Pakistan’s education system to the world class standard that we deserve. Central planning has not worked in India, and it has not worked in Pakistan. It’s time to try something new.