The appointment of the Higher Education Commission's (HEC) permanent executive director (ED), which has been delayed for more than three years, has hit another snag with the federal education ministry raising objections over the selection board constituted for the purpose, it emerged on Tuesday, just two days before the board was scheduled to interview candidates for the post.
The post of the HEC's regular ED, who acts as the principal accounting officer, had fallen vacant in October 2018 after Dr Arshad Ali had resigned.
After his resignation, the HEC advertised the post thrice but, as per officials in the commission’s regulatory body, it could not find a suitable candidate.
Finally in October last year, the HEC hired the services of senior bureaucrat Dr Shaista Sohail on deputation basis against the post of ED.
However, she retired in August this year after reaching the age of superannuation, but she was given an extension to run the affairs of HEC.
The commission advertised the post for a fourth time in September 2021 but the process was not completed.
Eventually, some progress was made with regards to the ED's appointment with the selection board scheduling candidates' interviews on February 3.
However, on January 31, the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training wrote two letters to the HEC, raising objections over the inclusion of two new members in the board by the recently reinstated HEC chief Dr Tariq Javed Banuri.
Dr Banuri was appointed as the HEC chairperson in 2018 on a four-year term. According to a notification issued by the federal government, he was supposed to retire in May this year.
However, he was removed from the post in March 2021 on the basis of an amendment to the HEC ordinance 2002 through a presidential ordinance that reduced the chairperson’s tenure from four years to two years. But last month on January 18, the Islamabad High Court restored Dr Banuri as the HEC chairperson.
Following his reinstatement, Dr Banuri made changes to the seven-member board, replacing former University of Haripur Vice-Chancellor Dr Nasser Ali Khan and Virtual University Rector Naveed Malik with two federal secretaries.
In one of its letters, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the federal education ministry urged the HEC to immediately revoke the notification for the appointment of the two new members.
The ministry contended in the letters that the HEC chairperson did not have the authority to reconstitute the board.
“The chairperson cannot overrule [an] already approved expert nomination by [the] commission," the letter read, terming the notification "unlawful".
It added that the nomination of two federal secretaries in the reconstituted selection board was not in line with the Management Position Scales Policy, 2020.
“Such senior-level nomination can only be made with the prior approval of [the] competent authority," which it said was the prime minister.
"The above-mentioned legal issues need to be brought to notice of the commission immediately and therefore, the ministry urges immediate revocation of notification," the letter concluded.
In its second letter, also available with Dawn.com, the ministry stated that HEC had not addressed the objections raised by it and for this reason, the ministry "regrets attending the meeting of the selection board [as its member on February 3] unless the objections are settled".
Similarly, the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is also a member of the HEC's selection board, sent a letter to the HEC on Tuesday, expressing its inability to attend the February 3 meeting unless the federal education ministry's requirements were met.
Dr Banuri has responded to the federal education ministry's objections in a strongly worded letter, stating that "the attempt by the ministry to interfere in internal matters of the HEC, in the form of instruction or direction is unwarranted, unacceptable and illegal”.
In his letter, a copy of which is also available with Dawn.com, Dr Banuri refused to withdraw the notifications for the inclusion of the two new members on the board.
“This is a frivolous and malafide request and cannot be recommended,” he said.
Dr Banuri further claimed that the two members removed from the board were close to former HEC chairperson Dr Attaur Rahman.
Previously, Dr Banuri, following his removal as HEC chairperson in March 2021, had alleged that he had been removed for apparently starting the accountability of three HEC-funded research centres supervised by Dr Rahman.
He had also alleged that these centres got around Rs1 billion funding annually but their outcome was not satisfactory, adding that when he asked for accountability of these centres he was directed by the federal government not to do so.
Dr Banuri had also alleged that his objections to the “so-called knowledge economy” project under Dr Rahman, which required a funding of Rs30 billion, did not suit the government.
Dr Rahman, who is not only a former chairperson of the commission but is currently heading Prime Minister’s Task Force on Science and Technology, had rejected these allegations. Interestingly, there were reports that Dr Rahman would replace Dr Banuri. However, when Dr Banuri challenged his removal in Sindh High Court, the court though did not restore him but barred the government from appointing a new chairperson.
Meanwhile, the government had appointed Dr Rahman and two others as members of the commission. The legitimacy of these three new members, who were appointed on the basis of the new amendments to the ordinance that sent Dr Banuri home, is also under question and will most likely be decided by the Supreme Court as the federal government has decided to challenge Dr Banuri’s restoration by the Islamabad High Court.