In retrospect no one can deny that the nationalisation of educational institutes by the first PPP government was a mistake. The education sector suffered heavily from this and the country could never recover from this mistake. No wonder then that just recently Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani conceded that the nationalisation of the schools by the PPP had been a mistake. But despite this admission, the PPP, now in its fourth term, is about to wrap up the Higher Education Commission (HEC) after the passage of the 18th amendment. The amendment has devolved the education sector to the provinces and as a result, the HEC and its responsibilities will also be passed down. This, however, has not come as a surprise to those watching the affairs of the HEC that had been set up by the former president, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf.

The Zardari-Gilani set-up made its intentions towards the HEC clear at the very outset. Soon after coming into power, the PPP government removed Dr Attaur Rehman, the founding chairman of the HEC, who still had another two years to go. He was replaced by a PPP loyalist, Dr Javaid Leghari, who has served as a senator in the past.

Rarely anyone protested this unfair treatment meted out to a body that has done some good work in the higher education sector in the past decade.

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.

It has awarded 11,000 foreign scholarships since it was established and country has started reaping the benefit in the form of PhDs, whose number is increasing with every passing year.

Admittedly, a lot of this was possible because of the funds the commission had at its disposal. In 2002 when the HEC replaced the erstwhile University Grants Commission, its annually budgetary allocations hovered around a few hundred million rupees. This shot up to billions of rupees. In 2009-2010 the government allocated it Rs22.5 billion, along with Rs18 billion for recurring expenditures.

Yet, the funds for the HEC were slashed drastically by the current PPP government. And now the government has decided to do away with it altogether.

Many in the academy have criticised the government`s decision. The Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), which closely monitors the quality of research, is a case in point.

Dr Attaur Rehman has also been vocal. At a press conference, he asked the government to think twice before devolving the HEC`s responsibilities down to the provinces.

“They don`t want to see the country transforming into a knowledge-based economy because this would enable us to free ourselves from the clutches of international forces that want Pakistan to remain a poor state,” he said.

According to another scientist, who requested not to be named, the decision was akin to the demolition of a multi-storey residential building shortly after its completion. “Once the complex has been destroyed, it is as if potential residents are asked to pick up the rubble and build their own houses.”

Indeed, now that the HEC is about to be disbanded, no one knows what will happen to its programmes or the various scholars enrolled in international universities whose bill was being footed by the commission. Already, media reports had appeared that many of these scholars were facing financial problems as their allocations had been reduced due to the budget cuts the HEC was facing. Some of them have, in fact, already returned without completing their studies.

However, the government views all of this a little differently. Speaking at a press conference, on Tuesday, Chairman Implementation Commission Senator Raza Rabbani refused to accept that the HEC was protected under the federal legislative list of the constitution. He added that the “the HEC act will be revisited and reframed in the aftermath of the 18th amendment.”

The 18th amendment has given the eight-member implementation commission the powers to issue orders, undertake proceedings and make amendments to regulations, enactments, notifications, rules or orders as may be necessary.

However, it is too soon to say if Mr Rabbani’s will be the last word on the HEC. After all, a three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, has accepted a petition challenging the devolution of the federal education ministry. Their decision will also impact the fate of the HEC.

khawar.ghumman@gmail.com

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