The higher education institutions spur human resource skills-enrichment that, in turn, builds the capacity to compete in a globalised world in which the knowledge economy reigns supreme. Prosperity or poverty, ascendance or decline depends on the intellectual base of a nation. The institutions of higher education in today’s knowledge economy bear a heavy burden and so are charged with playing a decisive role in the development of nations in the 21st century. It is in this context of the vital role that institutions of higher education play in the destiny of nations that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) can enrich the human intellect without borders - an aim of the HEC!

The benefits brought by the HEC for individuals are far-reaching when comparison is made prior to the establishment of the HEC; though it has a long way to achieve its desired objectives. On average, graduates get better jobs and earn more than those without a higher education. The HEC provided the much needed material support to all aspiring students to attain higher education. The necessity to pay attention to higher education in Pakistan was due to following reasons:

i   Demographic bulge that necessitated establishing institutions of higher education to cater to the caveats of rising populace.

i   Knowledge economy that compelled Pakistan to pay heed to the education sector, especially higher education.

i   Information society that formed linkages, shrinking the boundaries of time and space with the assistance of cybertech.

i   Skill development that aimed to enhance the base of human resource capital.

In response to the above mentioned trends, the HEC was established in an effort to cope with these challenges. It established 48 new universities in a decade. Before its establishment, there were only 330,000 students in various universities. Now the strength is more than one million. Female enrolment in the universities increased from 36 to 46 percent. Eight thousand scholarships for financially constrained students have been arranged. Ten thousand local and foreign scholarships have been given to students. After the establishment of the HEC, 4,850 PhDs have been awarded to various scholars. However, prior to its establishment, only 3,281 PhDs were awarded in last 55 years.

From 2002 to 2012, there has been an eight-fold increase in international research publications from 816 to 6,300 in Pakistan. Due to tremendous increase in the research work, Pakistan’s share in global research has increased three times from 2002 to 2012. Further, 16,450 faculty members have been trained so far to impart effective pedagogy to students. There are around 84 Quality Enhancement Cells working in various universities to ensure the quality of teaching and curriculum. A Quality Assurance Agency has been created.

There are around 164 HEC recognised journals. A standardised criterion for PhD and MPhil has been formulated. Every PhD thesis is externally evaluated from foreign university - a practice alien to inside the education system before the HEC. A uniform and standard criterion for the appointment of the faculty has been made to attract the best talent to institutions of higher learning. Prior to the establishment of the HEC, mostly PhDs were awarded in languages like Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, etc. PhD scholars in natural, physical and engineering disciplines were few and far between. The HEC change this research trend and offered scholarships in basic and engineering sciences.

In 2011, the HEC achieved the hallmark of arranging the country’s first-ever Interuniversity Consortium for the promotion of social sciences, art and humanities. The main aim of this collaborative venture was to improve the state of social sciences in Pakistan. The author himself undertook special interest in the consortium being a sociologist and demographer. Without focusing on social sciences, the ideals of social betterment and democracy cannot be achieved at which the HEC focused its attention.

In spite of all the progress that has been achieved in the last one decade or so, higher education is still under a great amount of pressure and debate, and at risk of decline due to the criticism being hurled at the HEC. Analysts form opinions in political context and apply them on the HEC without having an empirical evidence to support their arguments.

They usually take a political view of education and criticise the HEC on the ground that it has failed to link higher education with the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. They fail to recognise the fact that the establishment of the HEC was a response to cope with the challenges that sprang out of knowledge economy and information society, which are rapidly enveloping the globe into its fold. John Dewey once remarked: “When the schools depart from the educational conditions effective in the out-of-school environment, they necessarily substitute a bookish, pseudo-intellectual spirit for a social spirit.” Only a productive nation can herald egalitarianism and welfarism into the social edifice of a nation.

A second criticism being made of the HEC is that it has focused mainly on quantity. This criticism is tenuous as the results have shown that in every realm of its activity, the HEC has formulated a standardised approach to maintain quality like external evaluation for PhD theses, criterion for the selection of faculty members, etc. But much of the scholarship and lay criticism of higher learning in Pakistan still view the enterprise as one largely sheltered from outside changes and only weakly influential in reshaping Pakistan’s social structure. This situation is both baffling and worrisome, as there is paucity of information about the students, who are now entering the institutions of higher education.

At political decision-making level, every step taken forward is synchronised with leap in backward direction. In the last two years, funds for the HEC have been slashed by around 50 percent. There is a risk of losing gains made in the higher education. The challenges are growing exponentially and the HEC today is facing hard choices on funding, quality and management. Tackling these challenges needs, among other things, a long-term strategy for investment and reform as well as better infrastructure, better collaboration and stronger links with the business community and industrial sector. For academics, policymakers, senior administrators and professionals of the HEC, there is an exigency to interact and share ideas about the existing and emerging practices and strategies that would enhance quality, productivity, collaboration and innovation in the HEC. At government level, more funds should be channelised in the service of the whole nation.

The writer is the vice chancellor of the University of Gujrat.