The Higher Education Higher Commission (HEC) is once again in the midst of a controversy in the context of the transition to provincial autonomy after the 18th Amendment.
There has been a decade-long debate about the conceptual framework put forward by HEC's first chairman, as well as about his overly technocratic approach to the development of higher education in Pakistan.
The issue was initially conceived in terms of the proposed promulgation of the much-maligned University Ordinance. The idea was to have a uniform approach to higher education all over the country, along with a centralised system of control for preparing the curriculum, regulating the standards of teaching and research, and taking the nation to the desired goal of development. The whole approach smacked of regimentation.
Not surprisingly, several universities rejected the ordinance, because their faculty feared a loss of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in the name of higher education. The ordinance was finally shelved.
That was followed by the transformation of the University Grants Commission into the HEC. The 'discarded' ordinance was now implemented by default.
The new institution moved beyond 'grants', and became a regulatory authority par excellence. It focused on: support from the military dictator, both political and financial; projection of wild and somewhat irresponsible developmental goals through media and various other public forums; and the use of control over funds as the means of overriding resistance from universities.
The founder-chairman of HEC relied heavily on his mastery over statistics — dead data, bland oratory and blatant dismissal of all criticism for being against the spirit of nationalism.
The Musharraf - Atta-ur-Rehman formula for the salvation of higher education was extremely ambitious, totally misdirected and unbelievably costly to the national exchequer. One could pardon Musharraf for being rigid and unimaginative, given his lack of exposure to higher education. But Atta-ur-Rahman should have known better as a university professor. Thousands of PhD and M.Phil students at home and abroad are on top of the list of HEC's pyrrhic achievements. No serious educational analyst would find universities in the public sector in a better position after a decade of HEC input. The foreign faculty has been a grand joke.
No professor with a name and career would leave his/her job in a western university to come to teach in a non-oil-producing, poor and increasingly violent country such as Pakistan. Only those from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc or the Pakistani diaspora found their way in.
Scholarships have been doled out in plenty. It was not uncommon to see winners of HEC scholarships perform badly in the interview for admission in a university department. At other times, HEC officials allegedly put pressure on chairpersons of university departments to give prior faculty positions to those who were going abroad on HEC scholarships. The rules and regulations and proper procedures for appointment of faculty were seen to be brushed aside as roadblocks on the way to progress.
Not surprisingly, the mention of university autonomy had a jarring effect on the ears of the educational bureaucracy in the heyday of the HEC. Policymaking from outside the campus for students and faculty inside the campus became the new mantra. The fact that it is the university which produces knowledge was lost on the new educational barons. They claimed to manage higher education in the 'national interest' and marginalised those who disagreed with the HEC's policy and practices.
There is a basic flaw in the HEC's thinking: it believes that quantity leads to quality. In a recent TV interview, Atta-ur-Rahman took pride in the fact that he had increased the number of universities in Pakistan from a mere handful to over 100. The HEC's leading perspectives revolved around methodology — not theory, the mother of all knowledge.
The idea was to provide access to data, to journals and to libraries. It was assumed that high-class research would follow automatically. Some believed in this idea, and poured billions of rupees into the venture. But the crisis of higher education in both the natural and social sciences continues unabated. No state can allow its functionaries to disinvest in its future to such a horrible extent.
What will happen when the HEC is 'federalised' in pursuit of provincial autonomy? The centralist mindset of the last six decades would judge devolution as the death of quality, which was never there in the first place. Instead, the centralising, 'uniforming', conforming policies saw the stunting of intellectual growth and lack of productivity.
It is time to turn to those who operate in the classroom, on the campus and around various meeting points of the state and society, policy and practice and faculty and students. The assumption of a high moral ground on the part of the HEC hierarchy and its lobbyists in the media and part of the academia against devolution carries the imprint of the centralist steamroller stamping on the nation's intellectual landscape.
The HEC's transformation is part of the larger phenomenon of transition of several ministries currently in the process of devolution. There are concerns relating to lifestyle, family situation, educational facilities for children and scores of other amenities available in the federal capital that could be working against the HEC's devolution. Otherwise, there is no case for imagining the governments in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Quetta being unconcerned with, incapable and unworthy of establishing merit in their respective orbits.
The political consensus on the 18th Amendment was a real feat of performance for politicians. Ishaq Dar's resignation as deputy chairman of the Implementation Commission on the issue of HEC's devolution is an unfortunate example of succumbing to pressure tactics and making political capital.
All democratic systems produce long-term egalitarian tendencies, both vertical in terms of class, and horizontal in terms of region. Under Musharraf, both the crystallisation of elite power and the establishment of centralist control reached a peak. Under the present democratic dispensation, power in all its forms — political, administrative, financial and educational — must disperse and control over education must be decentralised.
The writer is a professor at LUMS.