Senator Raza Rabbani said he is ready to face a detailed house debate over what he described as “a storm in a teacup”.—File photo

ISLAMABAD: Pre-emptive politics. Conspiracy against provincial autonomy. Attempt to degrade parliament.

Such angry comments came from lawmakers as what Senator Raza Rabbani saw as only “a storm in a teacup” over mainly the financial devolution of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to provinces spilled over in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

And when he received an apparently incomplete information during his speech in the lower house that the Supreme Court had issued a stay order against the planned devolution, Mr Rabbani, Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination and Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for the Implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment, remarked: “Probably we are writing a new history to stop parliament from legislation.”

It later emerged that a three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had only issued an interim order on a challenge to the devolution plan that the HEC’s present status would continue unless altered by a new legislation – a course Mr Rabbani said was already in the works to meet the requirements of the Eighteenth Amendment.

The senator said he was ready to face a detailed house debate over what he described as “a storm in a teacup” he blamed on unspecified opponents of provincial autonomy, though he clearly accused the present HEC chairman and some university vice-chancellors of playing “pre-emptive politics” after his commission had explained to their delegation the necessity of the devolution and the plan to form a new “standards of higher education commission” as an autonomous body by amending the existing Musharraf-era ordinance.

He said the commission had assured the delegation members they would be consulted again before bringing the amending law to parliament. “But instead of waiting, they resorted to pre-emptive politics and tried to create confusion and a fear factor that (foreign) scholarships (awarded by the HEC) would be terminated.”

Mr Rabbani assured the house the present scholarships would not be hit, whatever their duration and explained that the funding of the universities now done through the HEC would, under the new plan, be done by the provinces -- already having administrative control of most of the country’s universities -- from their share of finances received through the National Finance Commission.

He also rejected fears about any adverse affect on foreign funding, which he said is actually made to the Pakistani government and is given to a government-designated institution, though he said he would not say anything at the time about funding by the World Bank.

And Mr Rabbani had a stern warning for those campaigning against the devolution plan. “If things escalate, and a situation arises, it would become necessary to inform this house and the Senate of factors working to create hurdles in the way of provincial autonomy.”

CONTOURS OF NEW COMMISSION

He informed the house of what he called “broad contours” his implementation commission had prepared for the new commission that will be replace the HEC. These are:

- Cause evaluation of the performance of institutions.

- Prescribe conditions under which institutions for higher and technical education, including those that are not part of the state educational system, may be opened and operated.

- Set up national and regional evaluation councils or authorise any existing council or similar body to carry out accreditation of institutions, faculties and disciplines by giving them appropriate ratings.

- Cause to be set up testing bodies or designate any existing body for the purpose.

- Determine the equivalence and recognition of degrees, diplomas and certificates of higher education awarded by institutions within the country and abroad.

- Develop guidelines by evaluation of performance of faculty members and institutions.

- Collect information and statistics on higher education and institutions.

- Perform such other functions consistent with the provisions of the new law.

After a PML-N member, Khurram Dastagir, accused the government of “confusing the issue” while, he said, a cabinet decision in the matter did not stipulate transfer of any of HEC function to the provinces – a charge rejected by Mr Rabbani -- an angry ANP member, Advocate Pervaiz Khan, accused “vested interests” of conspiring against provincial autonomy as he said was being done also against devolution of culture ministry, and added that there was no need for the HEC or even another commission after education had been devolved to provinces under the 18th Amendment.

He said despite being part of the coalition government, his party did not agree with guidelines cited by Mr Rabbani for a new commission.

But another ANP member, Bushra Gohar, called for reposing confidence in what the implementation commission was doing while blaming what she called “thekedars (contractors) sitting in the HEC” for initiating a “conspiracy” against provincial autonomy.

PPP’s Privatisation Minister Naveed Qamar said that like administrative control, the financial control of universities was rightly being transferred to the provinces, while another PPP member, Nawab Mohamad Yousuf Talpur, said he thought the anti-devolution campaign was a conspiracy against the 18th Amendment that he feared could also hit devolution of other subjects.

Former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who heads his PPP-S faction, saw in the controversy “an attempt to degrade our parliament” and asked why some members have opposed the HEC’s financial devolution while their parties had not even given a dissenting note on the issue when the 18th Amendment was drafted by an all-party parliamentary committee.

PML-Q’s president for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Amir Muqam, also supported the HEC devolution plan and said there would be no use of parliament or its committees if their decisions were stayed by courts.

NO MEDIA TARGETING

Information and Broadcasting Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan rejected Leader of Opposition Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan’s allegation made on Monday that the government was targeting a media group critical of its policies and said no ban had been imposed on the group’s sports channel while another had been barred for violating the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s law.

She offered a probe into the matter by a parliamentary committee.