According to the news reports published in The News and Dawn, the Implementation Commission of the 18th Amendment has decided to devolve Higher Education Commission to the provinces. From the details that have emerged so far, it appears that either HEC is being completely devolved to the provinces, or many of its powers will be transferred to the provinces. While the details of this plan are being worked out, we invite our readers to comment on the pros and cons of a complete or substantial devolution of HEC to provinces.
The justification being provided for the move is that the 18th constitutional amendment abolished the Concurrent List that allowed the Federal government to legislate on issues like “[c]urriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centers of excellence, and standards of education” and “Islamic Education”. However the 18th constitutional amendment, while abolishing the Concurrent List has added a few entries to the Federal List that essentially account for HEC’s charter covered in the Higher Education Commission Ordinance 2002 that established the institution. The Federal List now includes,
- “Standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions”.
- “National planning and national economic coordination including planning and coordination of scientific and technological research”.
These entries in the federal list indicate that the authors of the 18th amendment understood that there is a need to coordinate research and standards of higher education at a national level and there is a corresponding role for federal regulatory bodies like HEC in this space.
STEP believes that HEC has been able to bring about a sea change in the higher education landscape in Pakistan. While HEC has faced due criticism for its at times overly ambitious plans, such as the one to create new public sector universities, it has, to a large extent, promoted a research culture in Pakistani universities which was almost non-existent. Further, its programs on standardizing curricula and testing, combating rampant plagiarism through strict policies and monitoring, sending students to pursue their PhD from top-tier world universities, and connecting Pakistani universities to researchers all over the world through video conferencing have been quite successful.
Most important though is the institutional foundation that HEC provides. In a country with crumbling and crumbled institutions, and ineffective bureaucracy, HEC has certainly been one of the most responsive organizations. Throughout its existence, HEC has appeared willing to engage in a healthy debate about it proper role, the limits of its power and the efficacy of its policies with the all the stakes holders, including the students. In many ways, the open criticism of HEC in the op-ed columns and websites like ours is a reflection of both its impact and its openness. The role it has played in the politically-charged degree verification process points to its strength as an institution.
To conclude, Pakistan has a myriad of problems and millions of young Pakistanis with no access to quality higher education is high among them. There is no shortage of battles to be fought in finding the best way forward, and devolving the institution that has been leading the charge is certainly not the way to go. Instead, the focus of our efforts should be on building additional capabilities, at the federal, provincial, and district levels, and ensuring that HEC does the best possible job in coordinating these efforts as well as providing the institutional memory that is desperately required.