It is now about a year since Pakistan’s higher education has been besieged by crisis. The situation was already not any comfortable due to financial instability faced by the universities in the last four to five years. There were increasing signs of governmental encroachments into the universities’ autonomy on various pretexts. But the events of March 2021 rocked the entire system. On some ill advice, the government removed the Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), ensuing months of stalemate in the higher education sector in the country.
After months of hard-fought battles in the courts, the removal was declared illegal, leading to reinstatement of the chairman. One could expect some common sense to prevail thereon. Considering the extent of damage already inflicted in the last ten months, it was in the best interests of the country to let the incumbent chairman complete his remaining tenure. This would have allowed the HEC to resume its functioning, including the process of appointment of the new chairman, in four months, when the incumbent chairman’s tenure is to conclude. Unfortunately, those who spearheaded the move in the first place, did not back down. They forced the government to drag the case to the Supreme Court to satisfy their ego at the cost of continued suffering of millions of students and faculty.
Their vision is to create elite institutions – such as the one now being proposed to be housed at the PM House – and let the mainstream universities that have been imparting education to millions for decades, starve and perish
The reasons behind the harsh treatment of the HEC Chairman on part of the government are mostly obscure from the public eye or have been misrepresented. As is clear from the Attorney General’s arguments in the Islamabad High Court, there were no concrete charges against the chairman, except that his vision for higher education did not match with that of the government. Interestingly, when it came to learning about the government’s vision, the Attorney General went on to state that the government expects its new appointee replacing the incumbent chairman to prepare a new vision on part of the government. This probably implied that it was not a matter of the government’s vision rather that of certain individuals who happen to be lurking in the power corridors and pulling the strings. For them, the higher education in Pakistan is exclusively their domain and anybody who interferes can only do so through their patronage or get ready for punishment.
The vision acceptable to these people is nothing new, but the same that has been administering higher education in the country for the past two decades. Their vision is to create elite institutions – such as the one now being proposed to be housed at the PM House – and let the mainstream universities that have been imparting education to millions for decades, starve and perish. Moreover, their vision is to engage the teaching community in a race for promotions and awards based on spurious impact-factor publications and let the teaching and mentoring, the core duties of a teacher, take a back seat. They do so in the name of promoting research, for which they have created a wide array of incentives ranging from higher salaries under the tenure-track system, provision of funds supporting purchase of expensive imported equipment, financial rewards for supervision and publishing in impact-factor journals and so on. The impact of this vision is so strong that even the newly set-up universities start research-based degree programs as soon as they meet the minimum requirement of two PhD faculty for MPhil/Masters and three, for the PhD.
Unfortunately, despite a substantial increase in the number of PhDs in universities’ faculty, hundreds of graduate programs, thousands of pieces of expensive imported laboratory equipment and dozens of elite laboratories and centres, our higher-education system has not been able to showcase any significant breakthrough in science and technology. It is needless to state that except for some insignificant genome sequencing, Pakistan’s helplessness in developing any semblance of a drug or vaccine against Covid 19 badly exposed the fragility of our sandcastles.
Dr. Tariq Banuri, in his capacity as the 4th Chairman of the HEC, tried to break the shackles. Not only he refused to take dictates but functioned in line with his own unique vision. Soon after his induction, he embarked upon strengthening the core degree program in the universities i.e., four years BS. He rightly figured out that the higher-level research-based degrees (i.e., MPhil/MS/PhD) were not making any headway because of the weak foundation. With a strong BS, prerequisites for admission to the PhD program was reduced from MS/MPhil to BS, which helped the students to not only save two to three years of their crucial time but also considerable undue financial burden.
On the administrative front, Dr Banuri reactivated the governing body of the HEC, which was dormant for years, to let it take ownership of decision making. He enhanced the quality of HEC staff, improved decision-making processes and time lines, and started rolling back HEC’s undue interference in universities’ internal affairs. This had not only affected the universities’ autonomy adversely, but also placed a huge strain on the meagre human resources within the HEC. He advertised dozens of vacant positions and tried to develop a team of highly qualified professionals to make HEC an effective, vibrant and responsive organisation.
The Islamabad High Court decision of 18 January 2022 provided a glimmer of hope that sanity would return to the system. It was also an opportunity for all those who mattered to take a fresh stock of the situation, bury petty differences, and restore the lost confidence in the higher education sector in the country. In these crucial times, universities need a strong institution in the Centre to support them in their recovery and rehabilitation. Wasting critical time, energy and resources in showdowns in courts may satisfy a few egos but will inflict a severe blow to the system, which Pakistan cannot afford.
The writer served as the Vice Chancellor, University of Peshawar.