LAHORE: All the provincial chiefs of the higher education commissions (HECs) and public sector universities academic staff associations have jointly rejected the proposed amendments [bill] to the federal HEC and termed it reversing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Punjab Higher Education Commission (PHEC) chairperson Prof Dr Shahid Munir in a letter to caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi says, “the proposed amendments to HEC Ordinance will severely and adversely affect not only PHEC but all other provincial HECs as well, that might lead to disinterest and complexes in the provinces.”

The chairperson had taken legal opinion from PHEC adviser Amir Sohail who was of the view that the proposed amendments and the compelling “HEC interest” to be unconstitutional in terms of 18th constitutional amendment and item 12 of part-II of the 1973 constitution. Further, the proposed amendments to HEC Ordinance 2002 are at all not necessary rather than a matter of choice, preference or discretion. Rationally, the most common and the lowest level of scrutiny of the alleged amendment is only whether the said amendments can serve some “legitimate HEC interest.”

It further states, the nucleus of the proposed amendments are predominantly engrossed upon the main sections of Act of PHEC that is operating as provincial regulator of higher education. It is emphasised and prayed that such powers shall not include the power to suspend, revoke, cancel or contradict the basic legislation as regard to PHEC. It is submitted that all amendments be framed and enforced to implement the said proposed amendments in HEC Ordinance to the extent of federally administered territory/institutions.

Heads of provincial HECs, academic staff associations say move to erode autonomy of universities

He prayed that their concerns should be conveyed to the prime minister, speaker of National Assembly and Council of Common Interests (CCI) and implementation commission of 18th amendment.

Sindh HEC chairperson Dr Tariq Rafi told Dawn that he had brought up the matter into the knowledge of chief minister Murad Ali Shah who discussed the issue with the federal government and was of the view that the Centre was changing the draft but would not challenge the provincial HECs.

He said the available draft of the HEC Amendment Bill 2023 was against the spirit of the 18th amendment and CCI and they would challenge the amendments to the federal HEC.

He said they would completely reject the federal HEC amendments bill and would not accept any challenge to the provincial HECs.

Earlier, the federal government had constituted a committee for deliberation to amend the HEC Ordinance on the directions of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The committee members include minister for federal education and professional training, minister for economic affairs, minister for law and justice, minister for climate change and minister for communication. They held consultations with the HEC chairman along with senior management and representatives of the Vice Chancellor Committee and draft was prepared in accordance with decisions of the committee unanimously.

The HEC Amendment Bill 2023 was approved by the federal cabinet, marking a significant development in the education sector.

The bill proposed 13 amendments to the HEC 2002 Bill including sections 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 10A, 11, 12, 14 and 18.

Under the new amendments, the prime minister will assume the role of the controlling authority for the HEC to enhance the government’s oversight in the higher education sector. The change would empower the premier to dismiss the HEC chairman before the expiry of term.

Furthermore, the amendment designates the HEC as the sole regulatory authority responsible for overseeing all higher education institutions nationwide.

In addition to these alterations, the government has eliminated the provision equating the powers of the HEC chairman with that of a federal minister. This adjustment clarifies the scope of authority for the chairman and delineates their role more precisely.

The amendment would empower the HEC to advise the federal and provincial government on proposals for granting a charter to award degrees in both public and private sector.

Earlier, the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) condemned the plan to amend the HEC Ordinance to make the body powerful. “This move is highly concerning and unacceptable, as it will not only undermine the autonomy of universities but also adversely affect the quality of higher education in Pakistan,” the association stated.

It demanded that the government focus on the betterment of higher education institutions and provide sufficient funds to universities, which were facing severe financial crises.

“We urge the government and members of the parliament to reconsider the decision and refrain from taking any steps that may harm the higher education sector in Pakistan,” it stated.

Referring to the 18th amendment according to which higher education falls within the purview of CCI as a shared domain of the federal and provincial governments, it said: “This is why no amendment to the HEC Ordinance can be made without consulting provincial governments.”

Furthermore, FAPUASA suggested that if any amendments are necessary, then consultation should be made with other stakeholders including the association.

Any decision related to the higher education sector must be made through a consultative process, and all relevant stakeholders must be taken on board, it added.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2023

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