While Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission has been critiqued as a failure in many cases, will it be good for the country’s education to suddenly devolve the commission? An Islamabad professor shares his opinion on the issue.
The issue of devolving Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) to provincial administration as per 18th Amendment, that is now part of the constitution of Pakistan, is at the peak these days. One scholar who has been an ardent critic of some of the damaging policies of the HEC in the past tells how, despite the commission’s failures, it won’t be a good move to evolve the commission all of a sudden. Let’s meet Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics and head of the Physics Department at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Winner of the Baker Award for Electronic (1968), Dr. Hoodbhoy is also a well-known writer and analyst of Pakistan’s affairs as well as an environmental and social activist.
Ernest: Dr. Hoodbhoy, it’s an honor to be in conversation with you! As we know the HEC is close to being devolved and notifications are being issued to the concerned departments. What is your opinion on this step of the government?
PH: Although I have been strongly critical of the shenanigans of the former HEC leadership, in my opinion the government is headed in the wrong direction. Instant dismemberment or serious disempowerment of the HEC is a recipe for producing chaos. Creating another bureaucracy, or handing over the reins to existing provincial education bureaucracies, which are even more myopic and less competent than those at the federal centre, will negatively impact the quality of university education in Pakistan. This quality is already much lower compared to India, China, or Iran. The few checks and balances that currently exist, and which are actually enforced by the HEC, would disappear. Academic decisions would be made by those who have little understanding of how universities should function. This would push the system towards free fall. A wild policy zigzag is the last thing that Pakistan needs.
Ernest: On several occasions in the past, you have criticized the HEC over its policies regarding higher education. What do you think is the biggest failure of HEC through its 8 years of authority on matters relating higher education in Pakistan?
PH: Between 2002-2008, its budget rose by an astounding 7 times – a world record. But a good chunk was squandered on various delusional mega-projects that failed spectacularly. Then, although it led to serious degradation of quality, the HEC encouraged the number of universities to double and then triple. The number of PhD students registered at various universities was also made to explode. When confronted by students and teachers who were unwilling to meet international standards, the HEC backtracked on its quality guidelines. The maladministration of universities by the HEC makes for a long list. Hyper-inflated salaries, recommended by the HEC, have made higher education more expensive. A full “TTS” professor nowadays can make up to Rs 325,000 per month, about 30-35 times a schoolteacher’s maximum salary. Many produce only junk research and have poor teaching ability. Even today, the HEC puts out spurious data that mislead the public into believing that there has been some sort of educational revolution.
Ernest: In 2005, the HEC started the Faculty Development scheme, sending hundreds of Pakistani students abroad for PhD. Do you think this was a good idea and would benefit the country?
PH: In principle it was a good idea. I strongly feel that Pakistani universities give inadequate education, especially at the PhD level. So I wish we could keep sending students overseas. But the students we did send overseas were sometimes ill-qualified to meet the challenge of a PhD. Much stricter criteria should have been used for their selection. This problem can, of course, be fixed.
Ernest: In one of your articles, you revealed that the HEC has wasted hundreds of millions of rupees on buying junk scientific equipment. Do you believe that the commission lacks a knowledgeable and/or caring administration that can make informed decisions relating lab establishment and related matters?
PH: Yes, I did write about this and took opportunities to bring this wastage to public attention. This was several years ago. In particular, the accelerator purchase that I criticized turned out to be 100% right. That piece of equipment turned out to be totally useless. Four hundred million rupees went down the drain. Fortunately, the HEC does not have that kind of loose money any more. In other matters it is still inefficient and lacks vision. But it is a lot better today than before.
Ernest: Quite a number of cases of plagiarism and substandard research have been reported in different universities and institutions of higher learning as the HEC associated promotions with research publications. How successful has the HEC been in curbing plagiarism and fraud in higher education?
PH: It has not been successful. But here I would not entirely blame the HEC. Yes, it failed to sufficiently expose parliamentarians with fake degrees. But this is largely because our social milieu treats corruption so lightly. Indeed, irrespective of whether the HEC stays or goes, Pakistan can have better universities only when social and cultural values change for the better. The notion of education as rote learning has not been seriously challenged as yet.
Ernest: We’ve been reading in news about the heads of universities and academia opposing the devolution of the HEC. What stakes are actually involved and how the HEC’s devolution is going to harm those?
PH: The vice-chancellors are concerned that they will have to deal with multiple centers of authority with each bureaucrat wanting to assert his own authority. Getting university budgets released will be a nightmare. This fear is quite legitimate. Instead of dealing with one entity, the HEC, they will have to deal with the Cabinet Division, Ministry of Foreign affairs, and various provincial ministries.
Ernest: Maybe it’s my feeling but as I look at the news sources, the major papers recently, there has been virtually no critical reports about the HEC. And virtually no one has commended the HEC’s devolution. Any thoughts on why this silence?
PH: That’s because the government is so inept and could not sell its case. Pakistanis can be reasonable and they would support the government’s decision from the angle that self-administration by the provinces is to be welcomed as a general principle. It could be argued, for example, that if a province is now to be in charge of its mineral wealth, then it should also run its own universities. A sudden, arbitrary decision announced by the government has upset people. What we need is a responsible and nuanced approach. This means devolving surely but slowly and carefully. Provincial administrations should be helped to build technical capacity so that they can be properly entrusted with key decisions such as granting charters to new universities, university admission policies, etc. And, while the HEC ought to be slowly downsized, some of its essential functions – such as quality control, foreign scholarships, and donor programs – must be kept intact under federal control
Ernest: In closing, please suggest some fundamental measures that we need to uplift our education so as to make it more than producing rote learning and plagiarists.
PH: We need new and better values. The spirit of inquiry barely exists within Pakistani academia. Academic honesty will have to become part of these new values. In particular, faked degrees, plagiarized papers, faked data, and cheating in examinations should evoke the opprobrium reserved for a person who goes inside a mosque with his shoes on.
Ernest: Many thanks Dr. Hoodbhoy for your precious time and sharing your views!