LAHORE: The Punjab Assembly seems to have made it a regular practice of introducing private member bills for establishing private universities, bypassing the rules and regulations and the Higher Education Department procedure.
In March, the House passed private members bills and made them law for establishing three private universities and in June presented similar bills for establishing two more. However, the latter were put on hold on the intervention of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
This illegal practice, apparently initiated by the PML-Q, has offended the HED and the Punjab Higher Education Commission (PHEC) to the extent that the accreditation committee chairman resigned from his post, while Higher Education Minister Raja Yassir Humayun Sarfaraz has threatened to resign, sources told Dawn.
According to the Procedure for the Establishment of a New University or an Institution in Private Sector 2006, any sponsoring body can apply for charter of a university by submitting an application to the HED or PHEC with a Rs100,000 draft.
The department scrutinises the application, sends the case to the accreditation committee and submits a report to the commission after physically checking the site. The PHEC returns the case to the department with its recommendations that sends it to the chief minister for permission to submit before a cabinet committee. The committee then sends the case to the law department for vetting that forwards it to the HED.
Practice initiated by PML-Q; minister threatens to resign over being bypassed
The HED forwards the case to the cabinet for approval to introduce the bill in the assembly. The assembly then refers it to the Standing Committee on Higher Education which submits a report on whether to lay the bill before the House for voting or not.
Under the law, any lawmaker can submit a private member bill by avoiding the above mentioned procedures, but even then the assembly has to refer it to the relevant standing committee. The committee gets its input from the higher education and law departments.
Rule 34 of the Rules of Business, Government of the Punjab, 2011 elaborates the procedure for submitting private member bills, including seeking advice from the law department and even intervention of the cabinet whether to oppose or support the bill in the assembly. Such a bill is introduced only when the government has been intimated in advance, whereas in the case of the three bills in question, the treasury was stunned to find them on the agenda for the private members day.
However, all these processes were bypassed and violated by the PML-Q MPAs who submitted the private universities bills allegedly to favour the owners of these institutes.
Last year, sources claim, differences had emerged between Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and Minister for Higher Education Sarfaraz over the passage of a private member bill granting charter to Green International University.
The private university belonged to a media house whose owner had allegedly approached the speaker for a favour as the institute wanted to bypass the HED’s formalities, including land acquisition in its name. The department and its accreditation committee had not even inspected the institute or fulfilled other requirements for granting the charter.
The minister and the speaker later resolved their differences where Mr Sarfaraz conveyed his concerns to Mr Elahi, saying it was necessary to fulfill the legal requirements otherwise the practice to grant charters through private member bills would open a floodgate of such unrecognised institutes.
But, on March 9 this year, the Punjab Assembly passed three private member bills giving charter to as many educational institutes. These included The Superior College, Lahore (Amendment) Act 2021 (tabled by Khadija Umer of the PML-Q), Bahawalpur Metropolitan University Act 2021 (tabled by Muhammad Afzal of the PML-Q) and The University of Chenab Act 2021 (tabled by Sabrina Javed of the ruling PTI).
These bills were introduced and passed the same day without being referred to the standing committee on higher education. Therefore, the department concerned didn’t get the opportunity to vet whether the pre-requisites had been fulfilled to grant charter.
Later, over the concerns raised by the higher education minister in a cabinet meeting, Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat had said on the floor of the House in a following session that before promulgation of the three universities acts, their sponsors must ensure possession of documents pertaining to the ownership of land in the name of the sponsoring body.
Despite the legality of submission of the three bills being called into question, this practice was repeated in the June 22 session of the assembly where the Qarshi University (Amendment) Bill 2021, The Institute of Management and Applied Sciences Khanewal Bill 2021 and The Aspire University Lahore Bill 2021 were submitted through private members Sajid Ahmed Khan, Mian Shafi Muhammad and Khadija Umer – all belonging to the PML-Q.
The sources claimed that Minister Sarfaraz then reported the matter to PM Khan who directed the law minister to stop these bills.
On the PM’s intervention, the bills were sent for evaluation to a special committee. However, they should have been sent to the relevant standing committee.
The sources claimed that the minister was quite disturbed over the interference in his department and passage of bills for new universities without following legal requirements. “If the interference in the [higher education department] did not stop, the minister may resign from his post,” the source claimed.
Quoting the minister, he said most of these private universities, including those whose acts had been passed, existed only on paper and did not even have a campus. Some of them had even started admitting students, which would result in another problem if these institutes are even built.
“The students will have degrees but no skill because these private universities will not be approved or recognised by the Higher Education Commission,” he said.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2021