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Higher education on the lower side
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April 15, 2011
Our rulers have developed the knack to play havoc with the settled and well-performing institutions in the pursuit of novel and strange schemes. The recent debate about the dissolution and devolution of HEC-higher education commission in the country has once again brought to the light bitter fact that education continues to be on the back-burner for our planners and leaders. Institutions are not seeds which can grow in a hothouse overnight, there is a lengthy time-line behind successful and viable institutions marked by several errors and mistakes which are fixed over time. Dissolution rather destruction of such institutions is a wild pursuit at the expense of a state and society. It seems that the present government tends to take critical measures on whims instead of thorough and well-meaning process of debate and discussion involving all relevant stake-holders. PM Gilani has affirmed the commitment of the government to decide the future of HEC after genuine consultation with all relevant quarters. But his assurances apart, the very issue of HEC future smells a rat because of proactive and impartial role of the institution pertaining to the verification of degrees of MPs irked politicians of all stripes. Some murmurs of protests coming from some political parties is just an instance of playing to the gallery while at the same time to corner the government to extract more concessions on few important issues.

The response of civil society, in particular academia has prompted the government to go for some reality check on the issue. The matter has also landed in the supreme court which is already burdened with some high-profile cases. The court has given direction to continue with HEC unless some new legislation is initiated and put into place in this regard. Students and scholars alike feel amazed and bemused at the prospect of packing up HEC-the institution which despite few pointed shortcomings has been delivering the goods to promote and sustain tertiary education in the country. Foreign donors have been consistent in giving aid to HEC which is a sign of its clean performance. Recently there were some 550 million dollars promised by the World Bank and the US to facilitate HEC to promote higher education in the country. This amount would not be delivered in case HEC is rendered nonexistent by the government. Not only that new funding projects would be killed, but ongoing projects will also be choked resulting in chaos and confusion for stake-holders benefiting from these projects. The government appeared to have read the writing on the wall in the wake of loud protest coming from academia but it knows that this step if taken will not generate popular resistance and condemnation as it did in response to judges issue as in this case major swath of population created that pressure. If this is the mindset of the government then come what may, the fate of HEC is sealed. Media is sure to uphold and propagate the cause of HEC and higher education but the government would simply wait for the reaction storm to fizzle itself out.

There are two factors which explain the current stalemate on the issue of the future of HEC as carved out by the government: 1. The current PPP-led government does not command the confidence of the masses. The track-record of the present dispensation has disillusioned the people not only from the government but at times suspicion and pessimism is also expressed about the viability and success of democracy in Pakistan. In the face of sky-rocketing inflation and rampant corruption people remember Musharraf era in admirable words. This unpleasant comparison speaks volumes about the sorry state of affairs brought on by the government of the time. Whatever measure the government conceives and undertakes, it is viewed with suspicion and people and commentariat jump to the conclusion to look for the ulterior motives. The issue of the future of HEC is viewed as punitive measure taken by the government to rein in the authority of HEC which did not kowtow to anybody on the issue of degree verification. This upset and frustrated the designs of the politicians and government alike. In order to avoid such eventuality in future it was saw fit to get rid of this assertive institution. This perception among the public makes it hard for the government to justify the dissolution or devolution of HEC. 2. people have become addicted to status quo and the prospect of change stirs anxiety and nerves begin to jingle. It is outrightly ruled out that some good may come out as a result of some change. In case of HEC the new arrangement is simply rejected because of our tendency to stick with the prevalent mechanism in every institution. This tendency is further strengthened by the lack of clarity on the part of the government as to what the new institution would look like, what would be its function and how it would be better than the present institution. The stance of the government is that it is in accord with the eighteenth constitutional amendment whereby education is exclusively a provincial subject that HEC is being devolved to the provinces. But the essential question here is that while deliberating on this issue did the constitutional committee took into confidence the HEC and other experts regarding the future of higher education. Had the relevant institutions been taken on board, such issues would not have cropped up. The lack of input in terms of consultation reflects in deadlock in transference of ministries to the provinces. The provinces have rejected to take the employees of the central government in various ministries. This shows the haphazard process of amending the constitution which is negligent of all other considerations. The devolution or recomposition of HEC without the meaningful consultation of all the relevant quarters is bound to create resentment among the academia and civil society. The wise course of action for the government is to make such crucial decisions in good spirit along with the input from all those segments of society which matter or may be affected by such decisions.



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