Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. But that is exactly what the government is trying to do with the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

Here’s what has happened: HEC is an autonomous body, which means it appoints its own leadership. Since its inception, it has been led by able, qualified and upright men with solid academic credentials. Now the government has issued a notification removing the Executive Director of HEC and replacing him with a bureaucrat. HEC says this is against the rules. A legal standoff ensues.

Lawyers will now do what lawyers usually do. Rules and regulations will be bandied about, detailed references to article this of section that will be quoted. Facts and figures in support of respective arguments will be flung like poisonous arrows. In the end, there will be a legal, or possibly a politico-administrative end to this sorry saga.

Why does it matter to all of us? The answer does not have much to do with legal arguments. It is, in fact, much simpler.

We need the HEC to stay the way it is.

Think of it this way: Here is an institution that has delivered results where others have miserably failed. It is no secret that education as a whole is a heap of smouldering mess in Pakistan. If there was ever a failure in our country – and God knows there is no shortage of them – it is the state education structure. In such a toxic environment, HEC stands out as an example of how things can be done right when there is a will and a capability to do so. For more than a decade now, HEC has been driving a merit-based system through which state universities have been reformed, excellent standards have been set, professionals have joined up and thousands of students have been sent abroad on scholarships.

And all this has been done with no nepotism, no favouritism, no sifarish and no cutting of corners. Meritocracy – whenever it is allowed to prevail – delivers results. That is what HEC has done.

And that is what the government cannot seem to stomach. The government, sadly, is polluted with two species that cannot help but milk the state for their own vested interests. Let’s call these species the politicians and bureaucrats. These two specimens of nature survive in a cesspool of kinship and patronage. In this cesspool, power is defined not in terms of what good you can do for society, but what good you can do for your family, friends and friends of friends. This is the power to oblige, the power to override merit in favour of nepotism. Through such power, these two species feed off the spoils of the state and make others dependent on them, instead of being dependent on their own merit.

In this cesspool, you win not by what you know, but who you know.

These species start to salivate at the thought of their tentacles around HEC. When they look at HEC from the vantage point of their cesspool, they don’t see the reforms that HEC has initiated; they don’t see the painstaking work being done to improve standards of universities and helping bright and deserving Pakistanis get scholarship money; they don’t even see intensive efforts to improve curricula and encourage serious research.

No sir, they see none of this. What they see is the Rs 48 billion budget that the HEC controls. They see control of public sector universities with thousands of jobs that can be doled out to favourites; they see scholarships that can be distributed among friends and family; and they see millions of dollars of donor money being pumped into this centre of excellence.

They see this, and they drool.  They smack their lips and sharpen their knives, and hunger to sink their teeth into this piece of prime meat.

Once this species is done, what is left is a carcass. Think PIA. Think Steel Mills. Think Railways. Visualise the destruction wreaked upon these institutions.

Then think of what will happen to HEC once these species wrap their tentacles around it. Think, and shed a tear of blood.

Here’s the tragedy. The bureaucrat who the government wants to lead the HEC may be a competent man. But he is a bureaucrat who has spent his career managing this or that ministry or such and such district or department. He is a generalist who knows as much about education as I know about aeronautical engineering. It is not his fault. He is a product of a system bequeathed to us by the British, the so called “steel frame” of bureaucracy which is said to hold the structure of the state in place. But times have moved on. The age of generalization is rapidly giving way to the age of specialization.

HEC has succeeded because it has been led by specialists like Dr Atta-ur-Rehman and Dr Sohail Naqvi. Had it been managed by federal secretaries, it would have turned out to be another PIA. Shudder.

We should make the entire government work like the HEC, instead of trying to make the HEC work like the entire government.

If there is any sense left in official circles, they would get their paws off HEC and let it serve the cause of higher education.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. Please.

The writer is the host of “Tonight with Fahd” on Waqt News. Email: Twitter: @fahdhusain