A NEW controversy has emerged over the National Assembly’s attempt to amend legislation regarding the Higher Education Commission. The Higher Education Commission Amendment Bill 2012 seeks, among other things, to bring the institution under the Federal Ministry of Education and Training. This has been criticised by vice chancellors of public sector universities in Pakistan, with some warning of political motives behind the move. First, with the current assembly nearing the end of its life, it hardly makes sense to push through legislation that concerns something as critical as higher education, especially if important stakeholders have reservations about it. Second, lawmakers should listen to academia’s concerns and not make any politically inspired amendments to the law. It is important that any changes made to the HEC’s status be dictated by the need to improve the institution’s performance, not by vengeance. In this context it is useful to remember that the HEC did not yield to pressure during the saga of lawmakers’ fake degrees.
Of course the HEC is not a perfect organisation and there is room for improvement. Critics have in the past said there is an undue focus on producing an increasing number of PhDs and establishing more universities instead of concentrating on quality. There are concerns about lax anti-plagiarism checks, while it is also pointed out that the HEC favours the natural sciences at the expense of the social sciences. While these and other relevant issues must be addressed to improve the HEC’s performance, there can be no compromise on its autonomous status. We have seen the effects that decades of politicisation and mismanagement have had on the primary education sector. Nearly all indicators regarding that sector are negative. The HEC — with all its faults — has made progress in improving higher education in Pakistan over the last decade. Efforts to rein in the institution must be resisted.